Exploring Irrationality: Clusters

With great trepidation, I want to use this blog to do something that may be verging on the obscene. Don’t worry though, it does not involve my disrobing on-line, at least, not yet.

Let me explain: I style myself a strict rationalist. I have spend much of my life fighting and trying to destroy superstitions. Since I have lived in Santa Cruz, California, for more than ten years, I have been busy. Tech. note: Santa Cruz is where half digested vulgar Marxism meets endlessly with New Age beliefs, diet and exotic health practices. It’s also a major center for the cult of Gaiia. (“Gaiia” is the poetic name for that contrary bitch, Mother Nature.) I think facts matter and the people whose influence I fight every hour of the day when I am not sleeping think only beliefs and intentions matter. They are further sure that beautiful beliefs are more real than facts and that they trump facts (if any).

So, here I go: I have to speak about something I cannot quite explain and that has been puzzling me all my adult life and perhaps before. And it’s a little bit shameful:

Events that have little importance in my life and that I encounter rarely tend strongly to happen in clusters. Two interrelated examples below. Let me tell you right away: what’s below is both perplexing and fairly unimportant.

Example 1: I go to the beach with my grand-daughter who is three. It’s the same beach where we have gone fifty times this past summer. There is small concrete space there in front of a coffee shop and in front of a restaurant. That nice day, the space is jammed. I need to go to the restroom inside quickly. I scan the small crowd for a likely person or persons to whom to entrust my grand-daughter for a very few minutes. My eyes rest on a nice, hearty older couple. I ask them. They say yes with an accent I recognize as German. They confirm they are German tourists.

There is no story, so far. Let me point out that Germans play no part in my current life, haven’t for a long time. I have not set foot in Germany for more than ten years. I have no links there; I have only one German friend who shows up once a year. (I do have an old story though entitled: “The Germans and Me.” Feel free to ask for it. It’s rather charming, if I say so myself!)

I come back from the restroom and thank the hale German couple and they leave the area. I sit at a table and engage my grand-daughter in a philosophical conversation. We are interrupted by an older lady, in her sixties with a little blond girl in tow. The old lady says, “I hope we are not disturbing you but my grand-daughter wanted to meet yours.” My grand-daughter has great charisma. (What do you expect?)

The lady and I chat. She has an accent. I ask her where she is from. She says she was born and raised near Munich. That’s three Germans in about five minutes. More than in the five years preceding.

Soon, it‘s time to go home. My grand-daughter is like I-have-been-all-my-life me: She never really wants to leave the beach. She lingers on, dancing around a sun dial that’s in the same concrete area near the steps to a restaurant. As she dances, she shouts numbers out loud as if she knew how to count. An attractive woman in her thirties is sitting by herself on the steps. She is smiling at my grand-daughter. Of course, I am confused and I think she is smiling at me. It’s not as absurd as it sounds. I am wearing shorts and I have good legs. I am also wearing, that day, my old straw hat with a broad brim that makes me look rakish. And a lot of women have ridiculous erotic attractions, thank God. So, you never know.

I start a conversation with the woman. Of course, I am flirting a little. After a while, I notice an accent. I ask her if she is Czech. I often ask that question because Czechs are always amazed that you know of the existence of their country. She says she is German, from near Hamburg. Then her handsome husband arrives, accompanied by their three beautiful children. I ask him not to kill me or take me prisoner. (It’s hardwired; nothing I can do.) He agrees graciously. Third set of Germans in fifteen minutes!

I know what you are thinking: All the Germans are from the same bus or they are drawn to the beach by the same event. They are not. There is no bus and there is no event. When the old lady wanders by, I introduce her to the family with the attractive woman. They did not know each other before me.

It’s all a coincidence or, is it? It’s definitely an unexpected cluster. Here is another one.

Example 2: The day after the encounter with the three sets of Germans, I am re-reading and editing a story of mine that features cranberries in a minor way. Trust me when I say that cranberries don’t play a big part in my life. I sample the over-sugared but sour cranberry jelly at Thanksgiving like everyone else. Since I don’t drink cocktails, I have no use for cranberry juice.

Cranberries were in my story only to illustrate a point, a small point. Pay attention; it’s one of these non-story stories. You might miss it.

At a small dinner, two years earlier, I had offered a bet to a professional French translator of English who was a French person. I bet her she did not know how to translate “cranberry” into French. I was sure of myself because the French know nothing of cranberries. It turns out I lost and for a stupid reason: French Canadians know everything about cranberries and the translator worked with French Canadian clients often. Anyway, my 20 dollars went to Doctors Without Borders, I learned a lesson and my story continued under its own power, well away from cranberries, jellied, pressed or fresh.

The day before the encounter with the multiple sets of Germans at the beach, I had picked up a new novel at the library. I had chosen it superficially, on the basis of its dust jacket alone. It’s written by someone with a Russian name and most of it takes place in Russia. Nevertheless, it’s translated from the German. I was not aware of that fact when I checked out the book. In would not have picked it if I had known. In general, I dislike translations. They are seldom good enough for me.

On page four of the novel that I began reading the very evening of the German encounter, about an hour after re-reading an editing my old story, there is a tiny scene that features cranberry tea.

This is all unimportant, I realize, and meaningless to boot. Cranberries did not play a role in my life. They still don’t but they entered my consciousness, albeit on a tiny scale, twice in one single day, after being completely absent, I think, for months. There is a cluster there.

Plus, if you paid attention, you might have noticed that the two illustrative clusters in this story might form a super-cluster through the word “German.”

There is a twist to the facts of this second cluster. A Russian friend of mine had read my story containing the translation episode. He had told me something I had dismissed at the time, nearly two years ago. He said that I was wrong to assume there were no cranberries in Europe. He asserted they grew wild in Russia. I had dismissed his assertion because, although he is an intelligent and cultured guy, he is only an engineer. There was a high likelihood he did not know cranberries, from blueberries, from loganberries, and even from gooseberries.

It turns out the Russian was right (or the translator from German was also making a mistake). I experienced this book encounter almost as some malicious attempt by unknown, playful but slightly sinister forces to force me to take a renewed interest in something I deeply don’t care about: cranberries.

What do you think? How about yours?

2 thoughts on “Exploring Irrationality: Clusters

  1. I tend to lean far to the rationalist side myself, Jacques, but I know exactly what you mean.
    Two recent examples:

    1) I recently signed up for a Twitter account, only lately did I find any use for one. As I was getting to know the service something put me in mind of a book I had read many moons ago by Kierkegaard called “The Public Age”. I dug through an old room of dusty old books to find it.

    A few days later I am at the library. I pass a book on the shelf by Evengy Morozov called “The Net Delusion”. I pick it up on a whim. When I open it up at home it has a chapter on Kierkegaard.

    2) I was doing some research for a website on the New Harmony settlement founded by Robert Owen.

    My father is retired and loves to photographic insects. I like to spend time with him and keep him active with projects, so I had the idea to do a photographic representation of a classic etymology book. The best one I can find is one by a man called Thomas Say. After doing some research I find out that Say was one of the original settlers of New Harmony.

    • Rick: Exactly! Great stories. I recognize them as if they had happened to me. I am sort of hoping that we will hear from others who have similar experiences. I don’t plan to create a cult, I am just curious to detect if there is a common behavior among us that creates an illusion that leads in turn to your kind of stories and mine.

      I believe that we have to be very attentive to the kind of mental filters through which these coincidences travel. Perhaps, the filters themselves are imperfect, biased.

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