Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous": Einstein

All this she told with some confusion and Dismay, the usual consequence of dreams of the unpleasant kind, with none at hand
To expound their vain and visionary gleams.

I've known some odd ones which seemed really planned
Prophetically, or that which one deems

A "strange coincidence," to use a phrase
By which such things are settled now-a-days.

Don Juan
Lord Byron

I have a hypersensitivity to coincidence. Maybe I have more coincidences than others, or I’m more aware of them. I know that I’m more dazzled by them than most. Friends know I’m given to loudly exclaiming “WHAT ARE THE ODDS?” in a hyper sort of way whenever one of these coincidences pops up.

Here are some recent ones:

•I went to the birthday party for my BFF’s brother-in-law, whom I barely know. That connection is pretty far removed. Turns out one of his oldest friends, Brian, is the brother of my cousin’s husband. AND, Brian and I were best man & maid-of-honor at that cousin's wedding many years ago. We hadn’t seen each other since we were standing on the back of the fire truck for pictures after the ceremony.

•I was sitting on a Long Island Railroad train waiting for it to pull out of Penn Station. It wasn’t my usual line because I was going to visit someone in the hospital on the North Shore. I looked out the window and saw the name of an ex who I have a lot of history with-—Doug--in neon lights. There were so many reflections between train windows, I couldn’t even tell what I was looking at, where that name was.

But what the hell was his name doing right outside my window in lights? As the train pulled away, I saw that the neon was on a train across the track, and as the train moved down the track it was revealed that it said “Douglaston,” a town on the Port Washington line.

But what were the odds? That I would sit in that seat, that the two trains would be so perfectly aligned, that only the letters for Doug could be seen. If the trains hadn’t been so precisely in place, and I had seen the “l” and the “a,” the whole frisson of seeing his name would not have happened.

•My choir director, on the Upper West Side, last week asked if anyone wanted to sing the Faure Requiem. He had been hired to play organ for another church that was doing it. He plays lots of gigs outside of our church, but for some reason he asked if anyone wanted to come along and sing.

Turns out that this gig is on Long Island, IN MY HOMETOWN PARISH CHURCH in Massapequa. The church I made my first communion in, where we had my father’s funeral mass.

What are the odds? And that the Faure is one of my very favorite pieces. So I sang the concert as a guest. It also happened that my BFF, who also grew up in Massapequa, was already coming for a visit that weekend. And that she happened to fly into La Guardia rather than Newark (like she usually does) on Friday night. So she drove out to Massapequa, picked my mom up, and went to the concert too. Strange, unexpected reunion.

The World Science Festival Is on the Case

Then on the heels of all this, the World Science Festival, which is in its fourth year, has a session called:

The Illusion of Certainty: Risk, Probability, and Chance
Stuff happens. Your best friend from Boston met your other best friend from San Francisco. Coincidentally. What are the odds? Risk, probability, chance, coincidence—-they play a significant role in the way we make decisions about health, education, relationships, and money. But where does this data come from and what does it really mean? How does the brain find patterns and where can these patterns take us? When should we ditch the data and go with our gut? Join us in a captivating discussion that will demystify the chancy side of life.

Wow. So the scientists are thinking about it too. Needless to say I’m going.


Peteski said...

About a month ago, I'm riding my bike, a car door opens into the bike lane - nearly nailing me. Turns out, it's my friend. Next day, different part of town, same thing happens. Turns out, it's his wife.

Michael said...

Very interesting! Here's my coincidence story today: as I was waiting for the uptown #1 train, I accidentally stepped on a discarded piece of chewing gum on the subway platform. I was thinking of how to scrape the gum off the sole of my shoe when the train arrived. I walked in, sat, and there, right in front of my shoe lay a flat piece of plastic, shaped like a razor blade. I used it to scrape the gum off the sole of my shoe, and wondered how such a specific object would end up exactly where I needed it, when I needed it.

M.A.Peel said...

Peteski, I love that story! Could be the beginning of an X-Files episode or a sweet/Phantom Tollbooth kind of thing. (Also a cautionary tale about biking in traffic.)

Mike, that experience is also an example of coincidence's cousin, serendipity: "The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident." Amazing. I get so jazzed by things like that.

Mr. Peel said...

The summer after I finished 6th grade (this is many years ago, obviously) I was traveling through Europe with my family. We were in Switzerland, in either Geneva or Zurich, and I was walking down the street one day when I heard my name called. It was my elementary school music teacher, also spending the summer visiting Europe.

About four years after graduating high school I was in San Francisco for a few weeks (I'm originally from Westchester County, New York). I was in my car, waiting at a red light downtown late in the afternoon. Suddenly, I head my name spoken. I look around then turn to my left. The guy in the next car over is someone I went to high school with.

One year in Los Angeles I went to a barbecue on the fourth of July and got to meet a particular actress I once had a thing for. The following year, I was working on a screenplay and had another actress in mind for the lead. I joked to a few people that I was going to have to run into that actress at a fourth of July barbecue to keep the streak going. Which is exactly what happened. That one really messed with my head. But I never got her to star in that movie.

Once, years ago, I saw a guy I knew during my teenage years in New York City on the street in Los Angeles. I didn't go up to him. Then about a week later I saw him again. Didn't go up to him. A week after that, I saw him yet again. That time I went up to him and our friendship resumed immediately. Eighteen years later, he's my closest friend. I introduced him to his wife. They have twin girls.

Life is strange.

Peteski said...


In the early 80s, I went to visit a friend in Oregon. I met some crazy woman at the Y (who had recently escaped from rehab with Truman Capote and years before was kicked out of the Weather Underground the day before they kidnapped Patty Hearst.) After I got back to NJ, I moved to Hoboken. Start hanging out with a whole new crowd of people. Befriended a local, we became fast friends. A year or two later, he said he met a girl in Manhattan. Yep. Same woman. They got married and had two kids.

M.A.Peel said...

I can't wait to hear what the scientists have to say about all this stuff.

Here's one: When I was studying in Southampton, England, my older brother came to visit me. We went up to London for a few days, stayed in a really obscure bed & breakfast in Bloomsbury. One morning we're down at breakfast, he's facing the door. All of a sudden he's spitting the orange juice he was drinking all over the place.

A guy he played basketball with just walked in the door. He comes over, says hello, with eyebrow arched. The guy knew my brother had a serious girlfriend. Pat quickly clarifies that I am his sister.

It put the fear of god into him: you always have to be doing right, because you NEVER know who you're going to run into.

new yorker in alaska said...

Great blog, M. A. My best coincidence story is when Dave and I were on our honeymoon in Belize, we are sitting in the middle of the rainforest in the middle of nowhere and a couple of other American tourists come up to talk. Turns out one of them went to school at UAF in Fairbanks, AK, Dave's home town, AND he took a biology class from Dave's Dad! Now, I know I can't go anywhere in Fairbanks without running into a stranger who knows Gerry, but Belize? In the rainforest?

TV Noir said...

Try looking at this from another perspective:When you think of all the moments we accumulate in living our lives, over all the years and decades, if things like this DIDN'T occasionally happen, THAT would be strange.

dorki said...

In tune with what TV Noir said, it would be odd that these things did not happen. Random (or maybe chaotic) events are happening all the time. The ones that raise our attention are usually the one that trigger a memory.

As far as "what are the odds?". Sometimes there is no basis by which an odds calculation can be done.

M.A.Peel said...

TV Noir, you're right, in that as we live the "web" that surrounds us grows and grows, on all 3 axes, for every person and place that becomes connected to us. But that doesn't really explain Peteski's experience of being hit on his bicycle a week apart by a husband and wife, or Mike finding the exact odd thing that he needs at the exact moment he needs it.

dorki, I'll be interested to see how the scientists quantify coincidence, and if they do talk in terms of odds.

I still feel a sense of wonder for all these great stories.