Wednesday, December 31, 2008

No Fate But What We Make?

The other day, my mom was telling me about a man she had talked to in her housing community in South Carolina. They had just met each other so they did the requisite exchange of background facts and personal history details. Naturally, this involved talking about kids so Mom mentioned that I worked for AAA in Virginia. He wondered which office it was and what I did, so when she told him I was the office manager at the Alexandria office, he started describing me to her. Apparently, he had been into my office when he lived in the area, and had enough dealings with me that he remembered who I was and what I looked like. I thought that was an odd bit of happenstance. As a manager, I’m mostly behind the scenes but I do interact with customers here often enough that some of them may remember who I am. What are the odds though that one of them would happen to move into my mom’s community, two states away, and strike up a conversation with her?

That got me thinking about other random coincidences that have happened. About four years ago, I got back in touch with someone I went to high school with because she happened to see my name on a school website called Her name was Carla and she was one of the five or six people from high school that I was interested in hearing from. There are a few other people I wanted to hear ABOUT, like which cheerleader became an alcoholic stripper, which geek was an Internet start-up millionaire, which teacher was a pedophile or frustrated novelist, who married whom and which jock now worked as a “sanitation engineer”. There weren’t many people I wanted to hear FROM though. I emailed back and forth with her for a year or two but I haven’t seen her in person since she lives in Decatur, Georgia. This year, I happened to be contacted by Cat, another one of the people I wanted to hear from. She saw my name on Facebook and wondered if I was the Richard Goodman. Of course I was him- there is only one of us who went to Thomas Dale High School in Virginia in the mid-1980s (and likely the only one there ever.) Besides, I always think of myself as the Richard Goodman regardless. I don’t think there is much competition out there either, unlike my friend Adam Rifkin who sometimes gets confused with Adam Rifkin, the B-list movie director.

So Cat and I have been talking lately and I ended up sending her a CD of songs. When I got her address, it turns out that she lives (you can see where this is going) in Decatur, Georgia too. Her job has no correlation to Carla’s job, she has no relatives in the area and she had no contact with Carla since high school, yet here were two of my former friends from high school living in the same city. Once this tidbit emerged, Cat realized that both her and Carla had some involvement with the Wiccan community in that same area so they likely know some of the same people even though they hadn’t ever bumped into each other. This seems to stretch the concept of coincidence pretty thin. I know the saying about it being “a small world” but the reality is that there are 6 billion people in the world and we live in the third largest country in the world and have the third largest population in the world. When people move out of state, there are thousands of possible cities for them to settle in. Nor are Decatur, Georgia and Ft. Mill, South Carolina such big cities or developing hot spots that everyone is moving there. Also, my circle of friends and acquaintances isn’t exactly vast. With a high school population of maybe 400 people, a college of 5,000 people (most of which I never met), neighbors tallying fifty perhaps, and 300 people in the course of various jobs, that means all the people I have known somewhat well probably number under three thousand people. That’s less than .0000098 % of the population of the United States. You’d have to talk to more than one hundred thousand people to come across one I know and that would only happen if you lined everyone up and talked to them. If you sprinkled them around the third largest country in the world, then that makes it even more unlikely you’d stumble across a familiar face once they left the same general part of the state as you.

Now that is just two examples that popped up this past month. When I gave it some more thought, there were even more oddities that came to me. In the back of my mind, I’d been pondering the concept of coincidences, happenstance, serendipity and flukes since November. What got me thinking back then was the news that Michael Crichton had died. When I saw that headline on the morning paper, I was on my Danube River cruise at the time, drifting past Serbia while relaxing in the lounge with a book. It was a paperback book that I had brought with me and of course it was a Michael Crichton book, the first one of his I had read in the last two years. What made me bring along that book when I had 130 others to choose from? Why was I reading that one at that exact moment when I had three other books and twenty magazines I had brought along as well? When I saw the news, why did I happen to be reading a book instead of eating breakfast or taking pictures at a tourist spot? It just struck me as odd, but I was also thrilled with the synchronicity of the moment. If it happened in a movie, you’d be thinking “Yeah, right. Deus ex machina.” It just seemed so preposterously apt that it got me thinking about things like fate, God, intelligent design and chaos theory. What constitutes a random occurrence, a convergence of chance events versus intelligent design, a divine force guiding the universe towards some desired outcome unknown to its’ participants? At what point can you realistically say that the mathematical odds of such a situation happening are basically impossible? And if it happens a second or third time, does that prove the existence of some higher power?

Such deep and abstract thoughts invariably led me to Ian Fleming’s book Goldfinger, just like so many philosophers and religious scholars before me. Okay, so maybe no one else but me has ever made such a connection but I did pull out the book because I remembered a quote in there about chance and circumstance. Granted, having just seen Quantum Of Solace that week, the new James Bond movie, also helped bring Bond books to the top of my brain since the new movie’s title came from a short story in the For Your Eyes Only collection. The quote though, right at the top of the table of contents page, read as follows: “Goldfinger said, ‘Mr. Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence and the third time it’s enemy action.’” So according to Goldfinger, once the improbable happens three times, it isn’t random. It is a deliberate action.

Although I’m not Goldfinger and don’t have to worry about secret agents stopping me from destroying the gold supply of Fort Knox or encrusting beautiful women in gold paint, I did start listing more of the recent coincidences that have occurred to me and I quickly came up with way more than three of them. Some are admittedly just “Huh, that’s unusual” situations but others are more along the lines of “Mathematically, that should be impossible and yet it happened. You need to go play the lottery right away.” For instance, here are some that are not that far-fetched. When my parents moved away from the Richmond, Virginia area, they settled in a town called Denver, North Carolina which was near where my sister lived. A couple years later, my sister’s job required her to move to another state. She now lives in Denver, Colorado. I have to pretty careful now when addressing letters to my parents or sister so that I don’t inadvertently write down the wrong state for their Denver. My friend Steve Bondi used to live in New York City before work required him to move to Seattle. After a little while there, he moved again, to Manhattan. Manhattan, Kansas that is. Two examples that are interesting but not unlikely although how many of you have ever heard of Denver, North Carolina or Manhattan, Kansas? Anyone? My high school chum John (I love using the word “chum”- it is so Hardy Boys) moved to northern Virginia for his last two years of high school. He hated his new school so he finished both his junior and senior classes in one year and went off to college. I finished in real time and went off to college too, ending up in William & Mary just like John. Not earth-shattering, I know, because there are only about four schools in Virginia that either of us would have considered attending but John’s family pushed a bit for him to go to school in Boston, so selecting a Virginia school was not a given. Where did I end up living my freshman year? In the freshman complex of Botetourt, in Faquier Hall which is right next to the German House where John was living as a sophomore. I did not know this before I was assigned to that dorm.

The other day, I got a “friend request” online from Mike Gunnels, a kid I knew back in elementary school, when I lived in Fort Lee, Virginia. He was one of my three friends from that neighborhood. I thought of him occasionally throughout the years, but I didn’t think he would remember me, much less look me up 30 years later and be able to find me based on the information I have posted on my profile. Okay, one last location-based item. Three years ago, Elizabeth and I went to eat at an Italian place near her house in the Springfield. We hadn’t been there in at least a year, so we decided to try it for dinner. During the meal, she looks over at another table and says “There’s Julie Meloro!” Sure enough, someone we had both worked with was sitting at a table across the room. They liked the place even though it was far away from them- they lived in Herndon- but they decided to come for their anniversary dinner that night. We hadn’t been there in a year, nor had the Meloros, yet we both decided to go there on the same day. Maybe it is just a small world after all, as the theme park ride says, and I can chalk up these examples squarely to the coincidence category. A little unusual but nothing that couldn’t happen under certain circumstances, right?

Let’s move on to the improbable situations. One day at work this year, I am answering calls on the membership phone line. It’s not part of my normal job but I do this every now and then when we are short-staffed and I want to be sure we don’t lose any sales calls to other offices or the call center. The phone rings, I pick up and I recognize the caller even before his name pops up on screen. His voice sounded like someone I play poker with at one of the neighborhood bars and once his name does appear on my computer, it confirms my suspicion. I proceed to blow his mind by saying “Is this the John Van Brocklin that plays poker at Pepi’s Pizza Box”? He says “Is this the Richard who plays poker at Pepi’s?” Yes he is and yes I am. Yeah, I know that we both live in the same general area and if I work for AAA and he is an AAA member, it is possible we will cross paths at some point. Still, how did I happen to answer the phone when he called? More to the point, we have 3.2 million members in the AAA MidAtlantic club with about 1.5 million of them in the Washington DC metro area. What is the likelihood that I will know any given caller even vaguely, much less personally?

Speaking of AAA, that brings up another example. In the course of catching up with Carla, she mentioned that her sister who still lives in the Richmond area was dating someone who worked at AAA. Upon asking several tough, probing, journalistic type questions (“What’s his name? Which office does he work at?”) I realized that he was our membership contact in the Richmond Headquarters, someone I would talk to a semi-regular basis. Another random thread in life’s tapestry turns out to be connected to me. Here’s another improbable example. In senior year of college, several friends and I decided to “take over” part of one floor of a dorm. We were able to get good lottery numbers for the room selection process so we got three adjacent rooms in a decent dorm. Adam Rifkin and I were in one room, Steve Fridella & Steve Bondi were on one side and Bondi’s friend Phil was on the other side, along with Phil’s roommate Mike Huffman. We all got to know Mike a bit better that year as we would all hang out in each other’s rooms or go do things together. Turns out Mike even dated John’s “friend” Melanie at one point. Stuff like that happens though on a campus where there are a finite number of people in a centralized area.

Eventually we all graduated (with eventually being the operative word for a couple of us) and moved away. Mike moved back to northern Virginia and I ended up in the same vicinity, oddly enough sharing a house with Adam’s girlfriend Michelle (Which was a great experience. She’s terrific.) Mike and I stayed in touch and maintained our friendship. Mike went to work for AAA and I worked for a music store. We were both really maximizing our degrees as you can see. Eventually Mike realized that he hated people so he went to night school and got an accounting degree. I still liked people, in theory, so I stayed in retail and customer service fields in managerial positions at the music store and later a video chain. I made some good friends there especially Elizabeth, a bright, amusing fellow cynic. We would periodically do things together and in the course of that, I got to know her sister Leona as well. Gradually, I got sick of not having any sort of regular schedule to my life at the video store chain because as the store manager, I regularly worked till midnight and later as a district manager I was technically on-call any time of day one of my stores needed me. So I answered an ad in the paper and got a job at AAA, a few months before Mike left to get an accounting job elsewhere.

Okay, in these last two paragraphs, I’ve casually mentioned several more connections and you are wondering if that was the point I was trying to make. Nope. Let’s cut to the chase on this one. Mike got a job with an accounting firm, of which there are hundreds in the Washington DC area. I have only five friends who live in the area, one of whom has a sister Leona that works for an accounting firm. Does Mike end up at the same firm as Leona? Of course he does. How could he not? It’s the same way the odds work when I am playing poker. If someone has a near impossible chance of beating my hand at poker, they will do so. They will get their “3-outer”, one of the three possible cards remaining out of fifty-two that will beat me. Yeah, you might think 3 chances in 52 isn’t improbable and neither do I but when the same person does it two or three times in a night, over a long period of time, you start to reconsider the concept of odds. If I have pocket kings, an ace comes out on the board. I never hit my “four flush” if I go all in but my opponent will always hit his to beat my straight. It’s almost a guarantee. I think I live in a world of reverse probability.

Sometimes, I don’t mind living in this zone though. Like when an movie actress I adore decides to do a television show, it is often I show I watch. Considering my track record with supporting shows destined to quickly depart the airwaves this has to be a fluke. I watched Sliders most of the 4 seasons it was on and the last two seasons featured Kari Wuhrer, one of my celebrity crushes (that no one has heard of though.) When that show was cancelled and her film career didn’t re-start, she went on a daytime soap opera. Of course it was General Hospital, the only one I’ve ever watched. When Marisa Tomei did guest shots on TV she appeared on Seinfeld, which I watched along with everyone else, and Rescue Me, which I watched along with 12 other people (It’s on the FX Channel. Which you’ve probably never heard of either.) Now that I’ve digressed a bit to gush about my celebrity crushes, here’s another example of the interconnectedness of things that has nothing to do with me. It’s just a “You don’t say. Really?” type of thing. Christmas day, Harold Pinter died, as did Eartha Kitt whom you may remember from the Batman television show. She was also a singer and in checking my facts on, it says that “She was perhaps best known for her 1953 Christmas song ‘Santa Baby’.” In other words, the originator of the Christmas song ‘Santa Baby’ died on Christmas Day. Things that make you go hmm, as C&C Music Factory might say if this was 1990.

I’ve shown you all kinds of examples, from the unlikely to the improbable. Let’s move on to the impossible though. In the interests of your potential lack of interest, I’ll just give you one example before wrapping up here. While in high school, I decided to volunteer for a 4-H summer camp. I have no idea why. I didn’t get paid even though I had responsibilities. Heck, I wasn’t even in 4-H! Still, for 10 days one summer I could tell people “I’ll be your counselor for this summer.” Some of the campers flirted with the counselors and vice versa which wasn’t too creepy in the case of fifteen year old campers flirting with the seventeen year old counselors. The ten year old campers were destined for heartbreak though. In one group of campers- not mine unfortunately- there were two really cool chicks. Stacy and Julie were the two campers all the counselors wanted to flirt with. They quickly picked their summer romances which is why it was odd when Julie told me Stacy had a crush on me. Um, she already picked someone and it wasn’t me. Still, I was flattered to be crushed so I plotted with Julie about how to sway Stacy away. During all the “accidental” meetings Julie helped engineer, I realized how cool Julie was though and wished she was the one who had a crush on me. At the end of the ten days, all the counselors and campers climbed back on our different buses to return home. Julie wanted a hug before we got on our separate buses. Of course I obliged. As the buses pulled out, someone commented on the big goofy grin on my face. Another person asked who Julie was and why her name was on my back. Huh? I reached around and pulled a sticker off my back. When we hugged, Julie slapped a sticker with her name on it on my back. It said “Property Of Julie”. She was claiming me. She did like me! That’s why I wasn’t surprised when she later appeared at the end-of-summer camp for just the counselors and older campers. It wasn’t fate- it was mutual attraction. We hit it off so well then that we became pen pals afterwards. (Tween translation: Being pen pals is kind of like chatting online, only with paper and pens instead of a computer. And it’s not instant. And you can’t include songs or photos. And it costs more to send a message that it does to text one on your phone. Still, it was the thing back then. In the 1800’s. Then again, I’ve always been a little retro.) It ended the way most pen pals relationships did when you were too young to drive and the person lives several counties away- we gradually stopped writing and lost touch with each other.

So, you are likely asking right now how on earth that has anything to do with fate or debating the existence of randomness in the universe. Well, for one thing, I had to lay the groundwork. For another, I was pretty convinced for a number of years that Julie was my soulmate and no one likes to attribute meeting your soulmate to pure coincidence. There has to be some magic spark, or predestination or divine guidance, right? No one tells the story of meeting their spouse by saying “Yeah, we happened to walk past each other in the supermarket and that was that. Random chance” Nope, there always has to be something special about it, like a certain slant of light coming from the clouds or a unicorn frolicking in the garden. Well, I didn’t end up marrying Julie. In fact, I never even thought I’d hear from her again because I didn’t know where she lived once she ran away from her foster parent’s. One day in high school I’m walking to my locker when a voice calls out to me. “Hey, it’s Julie. Remember me? You liked me or at least you did at summer camp.” Yeah, I remember. You’re pretty unforgettable. Turns out that she was put into a new foster home and it was in my school district so she was going to my high school. She had been there a week and noticed me a couple days earlier but was too nervous to talk to me until now. That’s pretty unusual how things worked out. We became friends again and started hanging out, mostly after school since we had different lunch periods and different classes. It was pretty easy to hang out after school because…she lived three freaking miles from my house! Nah, there is no such thing as a design to the universe. I see no evidence of it. Show me some more proof, concrete proof. Show me a manual, some book detailing the plan.

I found the book twenty years later. By then, I had basically been out of touch with Julie for ten years. Somewhere in that span of time she had gone to college, majored in English, divorced Tommy, and then married Reinhold. I think she has kids too- don’t ask me why I think that but I think I’m right. As far as I know, she is still living in Richmond with Reinhold and hopefully she’s happy. A few years ago, Elizabeth was on an Oscar Wilde kick. She was proclaiming his genius and encouraging everyone to read his stuff. Not that I disagree, but it did involve seeing a bunch of plays and movies and one Christmas, everyone got the collected works of Oscar Wilde as their present. When I was in Paris, I even decided to stop by his gravesite. One day I was at a book sale at the library and I was rummaging through the classics section. Since it was the year before I got the Wilde “doorstop” book for Christmas, I bought a couple of the Oscar Wilde books they had so I could read some Wilde. I’ll buy anything for a quarter if I’m even mildly interested in it. At home, I flipped through Dorian Gray and wondered what people other than Elizabeth thought of Wilde, not that it was a conversation you can start with too many people these days.

This book had some notes in the margins and some underlined passages so I skimmed through those to see if they could validate Elizabeth’s current obsession. As I read through various notes on many of the pages, they bothered me for some reason. I went back to the beginning of the book with the intention of going through all of them again front-to-back. On the front, I see a handwritten notation- Julie Yates, the name I first knew her by- in the same style handwriting that my former pen pal had. I had to find out if it was hers. I was even willing to make that awkward phone call, the one where someone you had long lost touch with calls you with some weird question or lame attempt to reconnect. Still, it was very gratifying to hear that yes, she read Dorian Gray for her English degree, yes, she makes notes in her books, no, she no longer has the book. I was positive that this book was hers and somehow over the last 20 years it had gotten from Richmond to Washington DC, so that when I was at this one particular book sale, I happened to pick up a book I likely would never had glanced at had Elizabeth not been currently enthralled with the author. This particular book would have absolutely no relevance to anyone other than me (or maybe Julie) and it winds up in my hands, twenty years later. That is my definition of impossible. I don’t know if I quite believe in God but I no longer believe in coincidence.

That last paragraph would have been the end of this column except for one small matter and let me just start this footnote by saying…Oh my god! As I was spell-checking this column, I went to Wikipedia again to see if I was spelling “Deus ex machina” correctly since Word’s spell-check is useless. Turns out I spelled it correctly but I kept reading through the entry to make sure I was also using it in the proper context and I came across this section:

“Modern uses- In fiction writing, the phrase has been extended to refer to a sudden and unexpected resolution to a seemingly intractable problem in a plot-line, or what might be called an "Oh, by the way..." ending. Some critics think that a deus ex machina is generally undesirable in writing and often implies a lack of skill on the part of the author because it does not pay due regard to the story's internal logic and is often so unlikely that it challenges suspension of disbelief, allowing the author to conclude the story with an unlikely, though more palatable, ending. A well-known modern example of deus ex machina occurs in the Michael Crichton book The Andromeda Strain: the pathogen referred to in the title is suddenly rendered non-lethal by a random mutation which apparently affects every existing virus particle instantaneously.”

The entry refers to Crichton, the exact person that got this whole train of thought started. How on earth can there be unexpected connections like this and not have everything be part of some larger order? If I were Goldfinger, this would be irrefutable proof for me. Of course, if I were Goldfinger I would also be a crazy, evil billionaire mastermind which I’m sure must have some kind of downside, even if I can’t see it at the moment. Life is not guided by chance. It can’t be, can it?


Mimi Nowland said...

"I don’t know if I quite believe in God but I no longer believe in coincidence." You don't believe in coincidence, not sure if you believe in God, then what do you believe in? Some pretty amazing stuff, against the odds!

Richard Goodman said...

That's the big question, isn't it? I've always been a bit skeptical about things and on a question like this, I'd really like to know for sure, one way or the other. It's hard for me to make a leap of faith. As I said in the very last line though- "Life is not guided by chance. It can’t be, can it?", it seems impossible that life just happens randomly. I don't think it does but I wouldn't mind some proof of that belief.