A brief trip landed my family in a Montreal restaurant where I was soon riveted by the couple at the next table. Instead of exotic looking natives using unfamiliar tools, these folks were indistinguishable from us

Bosto­nians.  Yet I felt profound distance.  For buzzing around their brains (the result of Montreal's attempt at cultural keep away) was this incomprehensible noise; an inaccessible social buzz--French. 

          Their table was awash with the sounds of foreign movies where the deepest feelings can be evoked from the shallowest words.  Who were they?

          I was suddenly overwhelmed with exhaustion and sympathy:  How tiring it must be to speak that language all day!

          I shared this insight with my beloved, who skillfully replaced my wine glass with an empty one. 

          But I was onto something.

          Drawn initially by the outward expression of exotic

dif­ference —— the sound of their language —— I was captured by an unarticulated desire to be inside their heads.  I wanted to experi­ence the inti­mate con­nec­tion between word and meaning as they expe­rienced it; to straddle our paral­lel tracks of con­scious­ness; to be in two places at once.

          I was frustrat­ed by the impos­sibi­lity of that trip and fa­tigued by the proximity of these crea­tures, so impossi­bly close by.

          This sort of quest is not unique to me.  Inter-personal and inter-species brain trans­plants are common literary and media fare.  Movies and television regularly slap a grid over an off-focus camera to simulate the visual point of view of animate and inanimate crea­tures.  The real voyeur is not out­side, looking in, but rath­er seeks to be inside, looking out.  Squint, and you're a wasp.

          But such techniques are the cine­matic equiva­lent of a child plac­ing his doll so it will have a good view of the room.  It's not that living creatures could­n't have con­scious­ness, but simply that we could­n't experi­ence it.  We can only inter­pret through our own con­scious­ness.  We are destined to be out­siders, wheth­er it be of another spe­cies, culture, lan­guage or person. 

          I felt very much the outsider in Montreal.  Well kept away.

          Using non-verbal skills, I recaptured my wine and

fo­cused on my family.  As we spoke, I began to feel the sooth­ing umbil­ical cord of unfathomable connection, akin to the com­fort expe­rienced by a young child when the tinkle of

dis­tant adult conver­sation becomes a blanket of sweet sound.  Yet the voices that lulled me spoke plain English.  I knew them intimately.  I under­stood their every word.  Who were they? 

          Like the structure of the atom, even our most intimate communica­tion is large­ly defined by empty space —— a silent history of presumed con­nection.  But the core stuff that binds it all is con­scious­ness, that unreachably personal mom­ent of aware­ness that laps seductively at the shore­line of the artic­ulate.  That's what Hollywood seeks to pro­vide with their spe­cial ef­fects.  And that's what I was trying to cap­ture, share, steal, experience from both the French- and English-speak­ing families in that restaurant.         

          Struggling with the bill, I saw both families check­ing me out; perhaps wondering.  Perhaps not.  I didn't really care, so long as I could, even for the smallest moment, see what they saw. 

          I felt a flush of connectedness and distance, as I decided that our con­sciousness is a unique­ness we share. 

          It is what we have in common.

          It is what keeps us apart.