11/22/09

What a coincidence that you're reading this!

"Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence."
--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

* * *

Back in the day apparently has become a popular phrase. I heard a clip on the radio the other day in which an announcer was saying that phrase has become hip. As usual, I'm a man ahead of my time!

I was even saying
back in the day back in the day!

* * *

Back in the day, I attended a lecture given by author/wacky chick Camille Paglia. I remember she told a story about going to Egypt and meeting one of her colleagues there in one of the pyramids. They were both shocked. What was the chance that they'd meet in the pyramids
in Egypt.

After reflecting on it some, they realized that the chances were actually very good. It wasn't a coincidence after all! They were interested in many of the same topics. They were studying the same subjects. I remember thinking to myself that it was more likely that they had passed each other on numerous occasions, perhaps missing each other just by minutes several times before. Still, isn't it worth marveling when such meetings occur?

* * *


I'm not a mathematician, economist, or a statistician but I hang around with enough of them that it is tough to be romantic or sentimental sometimes. There's a principle known as "the law of very large numbers." Briefly, it means that with a large enough sample, any outrageous thing can happen. While most just lose when playing the lottery, there is the occasional person who will win more than once, sometimes even multiple times within a short period of time.

Statisticians even point out, for example, that in any room with at least 23 people there that at least two of them will share the same birthday. Or the same last name, same clothing, might be from the same hometown or high school.

I understand what they are saying. Still, isn't it worth marveling when those things do happen.

* * *

More than a decade when I was in Taiwan, I met an absolutely lovely young lady at a birthday party. The meeting almost didn't happen. The b-day party had been scheduled on a Monday night. I could not attend that night because I was teaching adults on Monday nights and I think we had a party in my honor scheduled for that night. This was the days before cell phones and I didn't have an answering machine at home.

Then, I got a call the next morning...the party had gotten canceled because of a problem at the club where the b-day party was being held.

I got to know a great lady there. After we got to know each other better she told me that it was great that the party had gotten postponed to Wednesday because she couldn't make it on Monday. Otherwise, we may have never met. We both thought...wow! Because of a problem at the club we got to meet.

I didn't want to seem too cynical, but I also later learned that we had already just missed meeting each other several times before. The birthday boy then worked in an art shop. I had stopped by to see him one day. She later told me that she and a friend had seen me there. They had thought, as they watched me, that I was so 1) cute 2) friendly 3) funny. Of course they were right. Another day, they had seen me at a cafe with a friend, reading and writing as if the world were coming to an end. They had also sat next to me in a restaurant one day, listening carefully as I talked away in English and butchered a couple of Chinese phrases.

So should we have celebrated all of those times we didn't meet? Or celebrated the day we finally did meet?

* * *

I'm not a romantic or sentimental person. But I am definitely a friendly guy. I used to be extremely shy but now I can be overbearing at times. I'm a member of a social group in which we go out together to sing once or twice a month. I expressed opposition when the organizer of the group suggested that we should have specialty nights. Singles nights one weekend; under 30 or over 40 other weekends; married couples other weekends. It wasn't that I was opposed to a particular night.

I feel like I can fit in with any group! Young or old; single, married, attached, divorced, separated or complicated; American or international. Whatever. I can have fun with just about any group, learn from anyone. Sometimes I'm the innocent baby in the room, sometimes I'm the wise elder.

I'm there for the fun. I love every situation.

* * *

I don't know if it is still a lesson there, but when Derek
Bok was president of Harvard University, he would tell incoming freshmen that one of the most important things they'd do in their four years would be to meet their classmates. As I see the names of former classmates and schoolmates pop up in the news, I can better see the wisdom of his comment.

Back in the day, when I was a student, I was a member of many student groups. American Indians at Harvard, The
Objectivist Club of Harvard, Black Students Association, the Society of Black Professional Entrepreneurs, the Harvard Crimson, Harvard Democrats, Harvard Republicans, etc. I attended many debates and discussions.

For about a year, when I was an undergraduate, I was the club secretary of a group at Harvard Law School.
We weren't even sure if it was legal or not but we did it anyway.
I got to meet many of the black students at Harvard Law School. One became a U.S. senator a few years ago. I hadn't thought about him for more than a decade. I remember when I was working on the DC voucher legislation that we were reviewing the names of senators that we'd have to reach out to...then I saw the name Barack Obama. Barack Obama? No, couldn't be!

Derek
Bok was right, after all. I should have gotten to know that guy better. Back in the day, I did run into Obama a few times but we never became friends. If I known he would later become president I would have taken photos with him back then, and gotten him to sign them. Or I would have broken into his dorm room and stolen a lot of his stuff--and sold them on ebay if I were still in jail.

These days, I'm not out trying to meet my classmates, but I do enjoy meeting my fellow citizens whenever and wherever.

* * *

This past summer I was living, working and partying in South Korea. Very often I'd have Koreans strike up a conversation with me on the subway, in a coffee shop, on the street. My co-workers often wondered what my magic was. We could all be out, but for some reason, the Koreans would seem to focus their attention on me. I suspect that it is my approach in dealing with people. Many of my American friends in Korea were on their guard against Koreans trying to buddy up with them so they could practice their English. But me? I always remember the old phrase that a stranger is a friend you just haven't met yet!

Many point out a coincidence when people finally meet. For me, it might just be a coincidence that we
haven't met yet! What were the coincidences that prevented us from meeting?

Instead of being on my guard, I embrace new people. In Korea, it was like being back at Harvard. I joined English language conversation groups, went swing dancing, singing, met people on the street, subway, etc.

In particular, I enjoyed going to the English language discussion groups. It seemed sad to me. Korean students and adults organizing those conversation groups, doing their best to practice English without any native speakers present. Of course, they were doing it on the cheap, which is the reason many of the Americans would avoid them.

Koreans were always delighted when I joined, not only because I'm a native English speaker but because I know I was enthusiastic. I'd get calls and emails from them inviting me to return. Some of them later joined me in my other activities, such as swing dancing and going out to sing.

Then, some of them became friends! I imagined that, years later, after some of them had gotten married or become good friends, that they'd talk about the way they first met. What's the chance that some Koreans would become friends after being introduced by an American who was in Korea for just a short time? What a coincidence!

* * *

A few years ago I was hanging out with a buddy. Driving, he turned right and almost hit a pedestrian. First, he started cursing the idiot. Then, he recognized the idiot...it was one of his neighbors! Instead of cursing each other and perhaps getting into a screaming match, they laughed and joked about the near fatality.

My friends and others who drive with me are always surprised that I never get upset at other drivers on the road. I'm a patient driver. I wouldn't curse at a friend for cutting me off, I don't curse the idiots I don't know yet.

* * *

There are so many coincidences in life. With a U.S. population of more than 300 million, there are bound to be many coincidences.

I'm aggressive about life. I'm even aggressive about making coincidences happen. Why wait for chance? I'm not passive when it comes to serendipity. Fate may be waiting to guide me in a particular direction...it may just be a coincidence that I appear to be running in that direction when fate shows up...

* * *

Last year I joined another social group. There were two new members that day. Since then we have become good friends. I now consider her to be one of my closest friends, probably a friend for life. A few days before I was returning to America a few months ago I sent her a message to let her know I'd be back in the U.S. soon. What a coincidence! She was going to be boarding a plane for Korea
that same day. Two airplanes passing in the night. How is it that we both just happened to choose that day to leave? Just as we just happened to join that social group the same day?

A statistician might point out that there were many people on both planes that day. There were probably many connections we were unaware of. It is possible that the plane I was taking back to America would, after I got off, pick up someone I knew to take them to America. Perhaps that person would even sit in my seat, cursing the jerk who left his newspaper in the seat pocket.

There are so many coincidences and possible ones. And yet, when one happens, can't we at least take a moment to marvel at them?

* * *

P.S. #1: I wrote this as part of my weekly blogger writing session. I'm reminded of something that the late Michael Crichton wrote in his autobiography. When he was a medical student at Harvard, he learned that medical students and interns constantly feared they were coming down with serious diseases. After all, they were reading and learning about symptoms for diseases. They often feared it was happening to them.

After writing about coincidences, it seemed that yesterday afternoon was full of them! It started even before I left the blogging/writing session. The session was very serious. No talking for two hours, everyone just writes. When it was over, I wanted to learn what the other people were writing about, who they were. The people writing books weren't very chatty. They really had just gone there to write and didn't want to mention details. I suppose some are on their guard, too, against someone stealing their ideas.

The first time I went there, it turned out that the three people who hung around afterward to talk all had connections with South Korea. Yesterday, the new member who hung around to chat didn't mention a connection to South Korea. But it turned out that even though we had never met, we have both written for the Root. Then, it turned out that we had even written on some of the same topics for various publications. We even knew some of the same people.

P.S. #2: Walking in the subway, I saw a woman who I thought I recognized. But I wasn't sure. I try not to stare for too long at women I don't know, so I was ready to look away. But she was smiling! Had I attracted the attention of some psycho woman? I smiled back, but was ready to move on until I saw her smile get bigger. I recognized her but couldn't remember how we had met. One problem with meeting many people is that I can't always recall how we met. Sometimes, people ask me how I met a particular person. I often don't remember or care.

After about a minute of chitchat about what we had just been doing, I said my name. "Casey, of course I remember your name!" She was disappointed that I could not remember hers. She mentioned some of the crazy places we had gone out one night...

Unfortunately, that did not narrow things down for me!

Then she mentioned a mutual friend. What a shock! I had just been on the phone, five minutes before, with that mutual friend. They were going to be meeting later the same day. The three of us might meet today for lunch.

P.S. #3: A few days ago I was complaining to a friend about some hoodlums who had killed a D.C. liquor store owner. I got a call from a different friend yesterday morning who was connected to the case. She wanted to know if I could drive her to meet the family (they don't live in a great area). I'm one of the last people anyone should call when they need a bodyguard, but I did my best to look tough yesterday. Everything about the conversation was confidential, but I will just say that people who injure and kill other people probably have no idea about the pain and confusion they can cause in the lives of others.

P.S. #4: Walking back home to get ready to be a bodyguard, I saw a woman taking photos in front of a building in D.C. I was in a hurry but I stopped to ask her if she wanted me to take a photo for her. She looked like a tourist. In a coincidence state of mind, I was going to ask her who she was and where she was from, but instead I just snapped about five photos of her. I wasn't looking to pick her up and didn't want to be misunderstood. I asked her to look at the photos, to make sure they were okay, that I would take more for her if she needed it. She thanked me profusely. I gave her back her camera then wished her well. I just walked on, wondering if I had just said goodbye to the sister I never knew I had.

I suppose that the statisticians who point out that such things aren't unusual would be proud of me for not bothering to ask more...

CJL