Friend told me of a conversation sheíd had, driving with her business partner after a long day, the two of them asking the question we all ask ourselves from time to time, anyway I think we do, namely: What Is All This?

All This. Subset questions: Who are we? Is there a purpose? Is there a plan?

Pretty much understood: we are unlikely to ever know the answer to any of these questions, or if there is an answer at all.

That doesnít mean we donít have opinions. Having opinions is fun and weíre entitled to as many of them as our little brains can handle, and even very little brains generate opinions, as Michele Bachmann proves every minute.

Forgetting for the moment the nitwittery faction, however, there are ideas around worth considering. Some of them, maybe all of them in one form or another, have been around as long as humanoids on planet earth, which may not be very long at all if weíre taking the long view.

Who are we? For one thing, weíre living organisms capable of perceiving our own transient physicality, and of reflecting on that, which separates us from the buffalo or the fruit fly. That alone invites questions, one of which is: does it matter?

One of my grandsons is a smartass who enjoys posing questions that no one can answer. Heís young, of course. Life will fix him.

Recently, he asked me whether I thought human beings had free will. It was, he thought, a trick question.

I do think we have free will, however I also believe ĖĖ from what I consider extremely persuasive personal experience ĖĖ that there are other operative forces as well. Free will, yup, only maybe not entirely, maybe not at all times and in all things. Iíve seen some pretty weird things, and so have you.

Once I answered yes on the free will question, he asked about dogs. Did I also think dogs had free will? I thought of dogs Iíd known, a limited number but special to me. I recalled my friend Bolo, the spectacular, lumbering, smart water dog I called Bolito, though there was nothing diminutive about him. Bolito had free will, in my opinion.

Well, what about other animals? Fish?

I saw where this was going, of course, from the beginning, but this is one of the roles of grandfather, to play straight man to any smartass youíre lucky enough to contribute genetic material to.

I conceded that I didnít know much about fish. Nor about bacteria, nor about DNA, nor about subatomic particles. Even physicists donít know shit about subatomic particles.

Existence is fascinating to me, especially my own. This was more of an academic question when most people I knew were older than me and I was speculating from the relatively safe environment of a Berkeley rooming house with Panama Red dancing on my synapses. These days, itís slightly more immediate since death has begun to wink at me from across the room, usually late in the evening, and one of the many tasks of an elder is to become familiar with this specter. Not so much fun as dropping acid at Wildcat Beach but perhaps slightly more to the point.

I think I was here before. Iím not certain. Some folks seem quite sure of this but for me itís an accumulation of peculiar experiences and intimations. Itís also, I hate to say this, a matter of the thing making sense.

I think weíre here for reasons we barely perceive, if at all. I buy the Bill Hicks theory, that we are energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself, that there is no such thing as death, that life is a dream, and that we are the imagination of ourselves. I suspect that we are all one, or One, depending on your liturgical bent, but also individual, singular, possessing discrete characteristics and engaged in uniquely personal tasks.

I think that the basic building blocks of the universe are strings whose vibrations are music, that in order to inhabit bodies around here we have to slow down to 98.6 on the dial. I think that we get into and out of these bodies unseen because we move faster than the speed of light unless we have human work to do.

If incarnations have a purpose, then what might it be?

Beats me.

Could be anything. Earth, after all, appears to be a small outpost in a very rural galaxy. We could be a sort of intergalactic Club Med, or we could be a penal colony. If the latter, what accounts for Joni Mitchell? Cole Porter? Willie Mays? Edith Piaf? Not to mention Gandhi, Jesus, Buddha, Martin Luther King, Jr., JFK and RFK. If the former, what accounts for Neil Diamond or Henry Kissinger?

When I was much younger, I thought I knew what my lifeís work was. If I was right, then Iíve blown it. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe Iím doing it, just as youíre doing yours.

My deepest suspicion is that itís about learning, whatever that might mean. Maybe itís just remembering who we really are, remembering about love, remembering to see the reflection of our own faces in every other face.

I canít answer my friendís questions. No one can. She doesnít expect it, sheís only asking to hear what the questions sound like. I canít answer my grandsonís questions, either, although in his case I try to fake it because he needs a few of his elders to mess with his head.