Mississippi River Bridge at Baton Rouge, La.

Mississippi River Bridge at Baton Rouge, La.

For 29 years I worked as a communications consultant with several human resource consulting firms. If you are not familiar with those firms, the bulk of the work is completed for companies by actuaries, health & welfare consultants, consultants specializing in other benefits and compensation, IT systems consultants and communicators.

Throughout my consulting career, there was ALWAYS this unwritten rule: Actuaries are revered like gods, don’t bother them with trivial requests.

At some time or other, my peers and I would come up with terrific questions that we would want to run by the actuaries, but didn’t because of the unwritten rule. But these were the folks that worked on questions similar to these. My favorite “odds” question has always been: “If I were to launch a rocket in my front yard that would escape the earth’s gravity, what would be the odds the rocket would hit Mars?”

And, I’ve heard other “odds” questions that my friends always wanted answered, but never approached the respected actuaries.

And what follows is related. Trust me.

So, Monday, my wife, Patti, and I were traveling from Austin, Texas to a little town north of Tampa, Florida to spend some time with family. We were traveling down the east/west/east racetrack called I10. Our car has XM/Sirius radio and we were listening to the channel called Prime Country.  Lots of Reba McIntyre, Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Trisha Yearwood and other country artists that don’t currently rank in the top 10.

Charley Pride

Charley Pride

We were traveling east and just at the moment we began crossing the huge bridge over the Mississippi River near downtown Baton Rouge, country artist Charley Pride began singing “Roll On Mississippi.” I kept staring straight ahead, but looked at Patti out of the corner of my eye. Unbeknownst to me, Patti was giving me the very same look.  So, what are the odds that just as we are traveling through the bridge over the river, Charley Pride would , at that moment, sing “Roll On Mississippi?” I haven’t a clue, nor would I know how to even try to calculate those odds.

We both knew right then that something unique was happening, but in the whole scheme of things, didn’t quite know how special that moment truly was. It’s not like that radio channel plays lots of Charley Pride music. Occasionally, but certainly not randomly. No doubt, Charley Pride has had his share of hits over the years. He’s the singer of “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” “Just Between You and Me,” “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone?,” “Burgers and Fries,” and “Kaw-Liga.” But rarely do you hear these songs on the radio any more.

So, in conclusion, I am glad to be retired from consulting, because if I was returning to work after this trip, the temptation to “ask an actuary” about the odds of that moment would be outrageously phenomenal, and I am absolutely certain that I would break the unwritten rule.

Three years ago, Patti and I left our home in Austin to go to a wedding in Florida. We had time on our hands so we decided to get there in a roundabout way. First, we went to Dallas and then wove an interesting path through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia before we arrived in Orlando. Along the way, we drove past Vicksburg, some 60s civil rights sites in Mississippi, Selma and Montgomery.

We were both very excited to take a trip through the South. Neither of us had traveled through much of the South since we were college students, which was many, many years ago.

It was very interesting to take these routes to Orlando. I should in my heart know that the South in 2009 is not the same Old South that existed in the late 60s. When I was younger and going through the south, there were fewer interstates and more two-lane blacktop traveling. Consequently, then the following was a fairly common site: trashy wooden shacks with open windows looking like they were about to collapse at any moment, but there was a shiny brand-new Cadillac parked next to the house.

I remember visiting a college friend of mine in Pahokee, Florida shortly after I graduated from college in 1972. He took me to a local bar.

Not the same bar I visited

The bar was on this dirt road at the outskirts of town. It had two doors at the front of the solitary building. One door had no markings, but the other door had “Colored” printed over the door. Inside, there was a bar that ran the full length of the building. There was some makeshift sheetrock feebly installed about three-quarters of the length of the building, floor to ceiling. Where the sheetrock met the bar, the feeble installation continued to the wall behind the bar, but the sheetrock was open about one foot above the bar. There was just enough of a clearance that the barkeeper at the larger part of the bar could push a glass of beer under the sheetrock to the barkeeper that tended to the black customers in the other part of the bar. If you stood at the bar, you could  look under the clearance of the sheetrock and see the customers on the other side of the bar.

In 2009, of course, there were more interstates, and fewer shacks to see. But what we did see was just as disturbing. As we drove through the towns and cities along the way, it appeared that every town and city had its share of Home Depots, Wal-Marts, Lowe’s and other national brand retail centers. The South along the routes we took had become so homogenous, so bland and lacking of character or distinction.

But what made this experience a profound experience was we listened to John Grisham‘s Ford County along the way to and from Orlando. If you are familiar with this Grisham book, you know it is a series of short stories about the South and the interesting characters who live there. As we traveled, we listened to these stories, soaking up every syllable, since Grisham himself was the narrator.

By the time we returned to Austin, we felt like we had fully experienced a new Southern experience. We ate the local food, we stayed in small hotels and occasionally would get off the interstates to look for those shacks, all the while John Grisham was narrating the stories over the car’s speakers. It was such a profound experience, and one we truly value to this day.

This is a very long prelude to a similar experience I had today.

For the past two-three weeks, I have been taking Gillis on walks — trying to work off some of his endless supply of energy. About a half-mile from the ranch house there is a park. The park has  4-5 soccer fields, some playground equipment and a hike/bike path that goes along a small creek.

I’m getting Gillis used to walking on a leash and, particularly, paying attention to walk to the right of the person holding the leash. At first, it was very chaotic, but lately the pooch is starting to understand.

Some days I take my iPod, and some days I don’t. Usually, we walk the almost-two-mile distance and rest on a bench at the park for a few minutes before heading back. While we rest, and Gillis usually sits on the bench, too, I watch the starlings dart up and down over the soccer fields, watch any rollerbladers, hikers or cyclists who may be on the track with us. Mostly, it is very quiet. There are fields of wildflowers and trees along the creek. These trees look like the Monterey Oaks that someone might see along Pebble Beach in California.

After we get to the bench, I can sit for quite a while, just listening to the birds and the breezes wafting through the trees. It is bliss.

Gentle on My Mind

Earlier in this posting, I mentioned how it is possible to have an experience and with a little added touch turn it into a profound experience. Well, today, I took the iPod and shuffled a bunch of Glen Campbell songs from when I was in college.

Just at the point that Gillis and I got to the park bench, Glen Campbell began singing “Gentle on My Mind.” I guess I suffered a sensory overload because the lyrics of the song, the rhythm of the music, the melody and voice of the singer struck me as in pure synchronicity with the breezes blowing through the trees, and the birds darting above the soccer fields.

For those brief moments, nothing else mattered in the world. I wasn’t thinking about the cancer, didn’t care about bills or what I had on my To-Do list for the day, nothing. For the length of that song, I felt like that was where I was supposed to be at that moment, experiencing those feelings of joy. comfort and contentment.

I don’t think I am alone in experiencing these emotions. Others have had similar experiences and written about them much more eloquently than I have here. My wish is that everyone I know can find that similar experience and have that feeling of pure bliss and contentment — if you have not already experienced this joy.