Recently Added

Scarcely visible threads

November 15, 2013

In the Autumn of 2002, my wife and I were traveling by car from a conference in San Antonio, Texas. Our plans were for a leisurely two week drive through the southern states, meandering over more than 7,000 kilometres without firm destinations or booked rooms more than a day ahead of us. Gone with the wind, you might say.
Our first stop was New Orleans, with perhaps 36 hours allotted. The day before we arrived, a weak hurricane had passed through, leaving only puddles here and there. In late afternoon, we drove into a parking lot near the waterfront, catching the enticingly sweet smell of fresh beignets.
Approaching the fellow at the kiosk for a recommendation, we advised that we'd just arrived in town, needed a 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 rundown building, just oozing in history and character. It was one of those places you see on TV during Mardi 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 and cozy, and a second-floor balcony with a view of the street, a sloping creaky floor… resulting in doors that didn't close quite right. Character in spades. No Holiday Inn for us, thank you very much. Perfect.
Next morning, we were keen to have 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 a favourite. 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 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 this 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 back to the sandwich shop, Peter pointed across the street, saying, "and that's where the family lived," pointing to our little 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, I think.
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 just shrugged our shoulders and turned right to enter. The place was packed but, without a long 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 looking for a nice tip, but 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 Peter's 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 Twilight Zone to mind.
As we drove out of town next morning, the car radio announced that another hurricane was coming through, expected 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, 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, times of anxiety, and times of stress.
Much of our anxiety and stress, and resulting need for myth in our lives stems from a constant craving for clarity, for certainty, and for simplicity. The world out there is very unclear, very uncertain, and very complex. From Albert Einstein, "Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted." Sometimes the urge to measure destroys any chance of true understanding. If you can't measure it, you can't manage it, the saying goes. What about those things we're not meant to manage? What about the people we're not meant to manage? Ever tried to measure or manage the tender gender? Stop trying to fix my problem. Just sit there and listen! A suicide mission if ever there was one.
Some things just don't lend themselves to measurement or management. Co-existence is sometimes the best we can do. Our constant need for clarity and certainty and permanent resolution discounts the difficult but nonetheless extremely important non-linear from our perspective. We struggle to understand, leaning too heavily on our faculty of reason. Why do we do that? I think the best answer is – because we can. When all you've got is a hammer…
Anthropologically, we've lost much of our intuitive sense, along with meaningful chunks of valuable input from our five basic senses. Human progress has made many of our life experiences easier, but not without a price. We don't feel opportunities or threats with the same nose-in-the-air readiness of our early ancestors. Instead, we sit down with paper and a pencil, write up a SWOT analysis, and navigate our path by way of reason… and then write up a contract for everybody to sign.
Last night, I watched an interview with Warren Buffett, who reported that he has had very few contracts over the years, much preferring the handshake. How ironic, coming from the investment world's über-analytic, that he declared, "you can't have a good deal with a bad person… no piece of paper will protect you."
I'm a firm believer that things happen for a reason. I also acknowledge and accept that many of these things 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 full participant in life than just the victim of one random experience after another.
… and that's a good thing.

Kevin Graham

I welcome your feedback. Feel free to contact me by e-mail.

To help me avoid receiving a ton of spam, I’ll ask that you please replace the parenthetic content, and the parentheses, of course, with the @ sign. Thanks.

kevin(at sign)