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Or maybe I'm suffering from second-hand toke...

March 29, 2012

Thirty-six years ago, light years before the duffel bag met the wheel, I heaved mine over a shoulder and trudged off to explore the world of higher education. Living in residence at Carleton University, I soon learned that the majority of my floor-mates were more focused on getting higher than on getting educated. But, that's another story.

My most profound education that year came with the realization that every thing I learned was like a door entry into a room with four walls and three more doors. With each successive door, three more unknowns were identified. In some respect, this rather intimidating prospect could encourage a guy to just give up and go back to the sweet-smoke filled dorm area, and join the many-miles-high club. I mean, just think about this for a moment. The realization that every new piece of knowledge signifies geometric progression of the size of what you know that you don't know (one step forward, three steps back, if that makes sense) is a daunting experience to say the least. Hence, the expression, 'ignorance is bliss.'

But no… trudge onward. Many rooms and many doors later, there's so much more that I know I don't know now than when I began this journey. This is a great joy for me… knowing that the journey has no end… well, at least I'll never come to the end of it before my trudge-off becomes a shuffle-off. The day I stop learning will be my 'shuffle-off' day, I hope. Who knows? Maybe my learning will continue in the hereafter. Don't know yet. Happy to wait for that lesson.

As the journey proceeds, I'm reminded regularly that there are two kinds of unknowns out there. One touches me every day in the sphere of concrete knowledge. I don't know how my car engine works… but could. I don't know how to speak Mandarin… but could. I don't know how my wife thinks… but… nah, pretty sure that one falls mostly into the second category. This second group of unknowns touches us, but if we're not watching for it, we encounter it only irregularly, if ever at all. Here's an example. Did you ever pick up the phone to call someone, and hear no dial tone because, at that very moment, the same person was calling you and they're on the line? Coincidence? Maybe. Probably. Upon reflection, I don't really know.

In the Autumn of 2002, my wife and I were traveling home by car from a conference in San Antonio, Texas. With Babushka tending the baby, our plans were for a leisurely two week drive through the southern states, meandering without firm destinations or booked rooms more than a day ahead of us.

Our first stop was New Orleans, with 36 hours allotted. The day before we got there, a hurricane passed through, leaving only puddles here and there. Arriving in the late afternoon, we drove into a parking lot by the waterfront, catching the sweet smell (no, this was a different sweet smell)… of beignets in the air.

Approaching the fellow at the parking lot kiosk for a recommendation, we advised that we'd just arrived in town, needed a hotel room for two nights and hoped for something in the old French Quarter. Very friendly and helpful, he grabbed his cell phone, saying, "I know just the place you have in mind." When the other end of the call picked up, we heard him say, "Hi, it's Peter from (I forget his point of reference). I have a couple here who need a room for two nights. Have you got something?" Quickly, he hung up and smiled at us, saying, "you'll love this place."

We did. It was in the heart of the old city, a bit of a run down building, just oozing in history and character. It was one of those places you see on TV during Mardis Gras, with people on the balcony, throwing strings of beads to revellers (or is that 'revealers'?) in the street. As we stepped into the small, darkened lobby area, we were greeted by a young man. "Hello. My name is Peter. You must be the couple we've been expecting." Another Peter. Interesting coincidence. Think no more of it. Move on. He escorted us to our room which was exactly what we were hoping for. Clean, cozy, second-floor balcony with a view of the street, sloping creaky floor… resulting in doors that didn't quite close right. Character in spades. No Holiday Inn for us, thank you very much. Perfect.

Next morning, we were keen to find a tour of the town, and asked at the desk. Three minutes later, we were sitting in a sandwich shop just around the corner from the hotel, awaiting our tour guide. While we waited, we treated ourselves to a simple but delicious ham sandwich made from freshly baked bread, and dollop-topped with mayo and a full coating of almond shavings. Remains one of my favourites to this day. The almonds are key.

As others gathered for the tour, our guide arrived and introduced himself… as Peter. Hmmm…

Well, Peter was a graduate student in the local history department and was pleased to give us a three hour walking tour of the old city. His manner was easy, yet enthusiastic at the same time. He told the story of New Orleans from the perspective of one particular prominent family back in the day. We learned about politics, business and trade, social practices, architecture, and lots of gossip and intrigue. Peter had pre-arranged to take us into the courtyard gardens of a couple of homes, not visible from the streets. These visits were a wonderful look inside what must have been a fascinating existence in the early days of a bustling young town. An excellent walk and an exceptional learning experience, courtesy of our guide, Peter. As we rounded the last few streets, he explained that the family around which we'd been revolving our historical tour had lived just ahead. Just before we made the last turn leading to the sandwich shop, Peter pointed across the street, saying, "and that's where the family lived," pointing to our hotel. Hmmm, again…

That afternoon, we arranged a bus tour of the larger city, taking in one of the famous cemeteries featured in many movies… mostly chase scenes.

Of course, any tour of New Orleans must include the local cuisine. This city knows food. Hard to go wrong with food in New Orleans. The quality bar is set very high, but also wide. If you mean to stay longer than 36 hours, I'd recommend a belt with a notch or two to spare. We had no reservations, but were told of the general area to search for dinner. Wandering along a boarded sidewalk, we were almost knocked off our feet by five or six women, laughing and shouting and half-stumbling out through the doors of a restaurant. They stopped when they realized that we were in their path, laughed again and asked if we were looking for a good restaurant. We were and said so. "Well, stop searching! You've found the place! Go in here! It's just great!" Recognizing that this was a rather well lubricated recommendation, we shrugged our shoulders and turned right to enter. The place was packed but, without a wait, the hostess escorted us to our table. A minute or two later, we were greeted again. You just have to see this coming. "Hi, my name is… Peter. I'll be taking care of you this evening." Peter was not in a hurry, and engaged us.

"You're not from around here, are you?"


"Where are you from?"


"Well, yes. I already knew that. [he clearly hadn't yet heard my wife's enticing Russian accent] What part?"


"Yes, Ontario. What part?"


"Ahh, London. What part?"

[raised eyebrows, my wife and I looked at each other, wondering if we were just being chatted up here by someone without any idea where Ontario was, let alone London]

"Byron." [specifically, the Village of Byron, a small residential neighbourhood at the edge of town, long since annexed by the city]

"Okay," he smiled. "What part of Byron?"

[gimme a break!]

"Warbler Woods West." [to be precise] "Why do you ask?"

[with another smile and scratching his head, Peter answered]

"Well, my mother lives on 'such-and-such' street. I can't remember the street name, but the bottom line is that his mother resides about 300-400 metres from us, in Warbler Woods East, just on the other side of the wood.

It's moments like this that call Rod Serling and the [click here – it's short] Twilight Zone to mind.

As we drove out of town the next morning, the car radio announced that another hurricane was coming through, later that same day.

What this experience means, I can't tell you in any concrete terms. I can't tell you that it means anything, for that matter. It's just one of those times when you know there's something out there that you will never understand. Coincidences? Maybe, but I've lived too long to think that there's a rational explanation for everything. I'm not sixteen anymore, so I no longer know it all. Too many doors already traversed… and so many more yet to open.

If there is a lesson here, perhaps it's no more than to encourage me to be more observant of what happens to me and around me with each passing day. To accept that there are unknowns that cannot and will not ever be known. The mystery of the tender gender aside, there are so many things, if we watch for them, that form scarcely visible threads connecting experiences to each other, and us to each other. To the extent that we are jostled by life willy-nilly from checkpoint to checkpoint… inasmuch as we deny the presence of something we will never understand (whatever that may be, of course, I don't know), I think we miss out on so much that life has to offer and find ourselves less capable of making it through times of uncertainty, anxiety, and stress. I'm a firm believer that things happen for a reason. I also acknowledge and accept that many of these events happen for reasons which I will never understand. At the same time, having these occasional, fleeting glances at such beautiful intersecting threads in my life, and having and taking the time to ponder on these unique experiences, I find myself more a participant in life than just the recipient of one unexpected pinball paddle after another.

… and that's a good thing.

For a friend,

Kevin Graham

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