My life has never been so full of mystery and suspense. For instance, why does the tag on my new bathing suit read, “Do not dry in sun”? What might happen? Will the fabric melt? Burst into flames? Shrivel up to half its size? Should I be worried it’ll do all that while I’m wearing it at the beach? Just what is the intended use of this garment — beauty pageants?
No one can shed much light on my bathing suit conundrum, and authorities remain even more puzzled over the question of how a kitten managed to get inside an ATM in Fort Smith, Arkansas. A startled customer heard meowing from the depths of the machine and called firefighters, who had to take the whole thing apart to extract the critter — now known, of course, as Cash. “Probably trying to find shade is why,” said Alexis Bloom, cat handler at Fort Smith Animal Haven. “But I can’t tell you how.”
As I was writing this piece, I consulted a few notes I’d made in advance, and thought, “Right, bathing suit, kitten in ATM, and there was one more…” The next notation read, “stamp story.” What stamp story? Did I have a stamp story? It seemed unlikely. Passport stamp, maybe? Hand stamp at an event? I began shuffling through my mental files with increasing urgency. Nada. I consulted Rich, who looked as baffled as I felt. This sort of thing is happening to me with increasing frequency of late, and I’m just glad that Rich is equally memory-challenged. Keeps our marriage brimming with exciting surprises.
You’d think I’d be better at unraveling enigmas like this after the gazillion hours I’ve spent watching detective shows on TV. I have what I consider the equivalent of a PhD in crime-solving. So you can imagine how excited I was to discover I could give my skills a real-time workout with the tabletop mystery game Death at the Dive Bar. I'd played other types of mystery games requiring multiple people, extensive roll playing, and a long night of competing to uncover the killer. Tabletop mysteries provide a box full of clues that you can review at leisure and solve over time, on your own or working cooperatively with others.
A few nights ago, Rich and I headed to a favorite road house, ordered wine, and opened up the game box. Inside were letters, handwritten notes, photos, files on suspects, a locked pouch that had to be opened with a secret code, and more, including a sealed envelope with the solution.
“Oh, are you into those mystery games, too?” asked our server excitedly, peering at the papers strewn across the table. “I love them.”
Another said, “I have one whole wall in my house devoted to murder mysteries. I tape up the clues so we can all play.”
“Brilliant!” said Rich. “We’ll set up a murder board in our dining room.”
So far I’ve just begun reading the notes, examining footprints, and puzzling over such oddball items as the menu with the words “We have to talk” scrawled on it. Friends who stop by are riveted and keep asking questions I can’t answer. “Why are developers sniffing around Devil’s Well?” and “Whose handwriting is that on the menu?” and “When will you know who did it?” I’m beginning to have a lot more sympathy for those TV detectives who are always getting hassled by the Chief to make an arrest already.
I decided to apply mystery game techniques to my stamp story conundrum and examined all my clues (aka notes). Eventually I came upon this cryptic remark: “Swiss cheese solution.” Of course! I had it now!
The stamp story is a true life medical mystery. Dr. Carter Mecher was asked to figure out the reason Charleston’s VA hospital had a shockingly high number of patients dying of colon cancer. Clearly they were being diagnosed too late, but why? Mecher spent days studying everything from medical protocols to scheduling.
He finally ended up in the hospital’s mail room and noticed a curious thing: a pile of envelopes stamped with the words “Insufficient Postage.” It turned out patients were given kits with pre-stamped envelopes so they could mail stool samples to the hospital for testing. Unfortunately it hadn’t occurred to anyone the kits were slightly heavier than a letter and needed two stamps instead of one, so most samples never reached the hospital.
“I loved that moment,” said Mecher. “It was so commonsense.” Simply adding a second stamp saved countless lives.
I’m a big fan of common sense —such a rare commodity these days! — and of the Swiss cheese solution, described by British psychologist James Reason in his book Human Error. He suggests when you're in unknown territory without an obvious silver bullet, the smart move is to use multiple, semi-effective strategies; you layer multiple solutions on top of one another like slices of Swiss cheese, until there are no holes you can see through. This saved lives during the pandemic (using masking and social distancing while working like mad on vaccines) and may help me catch the killer in Death at the Dive Bar.
The Swiss cheese solution and stamp story both appear in Michael Lewis' bestsellerThe Premonition: A Pandemic Story, a nonfiction thriller about the public health community grappling with the twin threats of Covid and human folly. It’s about problem-solving in the midst of crisis, a process known as “building a plane while it’s flying.” I think we all know what that feels like. These days we seem to lurch from one catastrophe to another, praying to find a moment to catch our breath, or if God can spare the time, maybe even a small miracle.
When a friend gave me this tea towel on Sunday, I picked up the Good Book and checked the relevant passage (John 2:1) but details were skimpy. A comment in an online forum said, “Dump the water on a grape vine. Collect the grapes. Make grape juice. Ferment into wine. Since Jesus is on the metaphysical plane (god level) he is time and space irrelevant so that process takes zero time.” Hmmm, doesn’t sound like I’m going to be able to duplicate those results.
There are so many things we are destined never to know. As the saying goes, “Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.” Who said that? Google attributes it to Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, Joseph Campbell, Clive Ollies, the Japanese poet Osho, Dune author Frank Herbert, Thomas Merton, Gabriel Marcel, Alan Watts, A. A. Milne, and the poet Yeats.
So who actually said it first? Your guess is as good as mine. Or Google’s.
I’ve given up expecting answers about my hazardous bathing suit and Cash, the Houdini of kittens. In fact, I’m embracing the chaos. “Experience,” says The Premonition, “is making the same mistake over and over again, only with greater confidence.” Here’s to making all new mistakes, learning from them, and living the mystery.
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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