Archive for December, 2011


Coincidences: Paranormal or Normal?

Are coincidences spooky supernatural experiences, or just interesting accidents of timing and geography? I have noticed them all my life, but I’ve never tried to quantify or identify them in any organized way before.

It’s not too unusual to bump into friends in the neighborhood. I seemed to run into my friend Connie pretty regularly at the old garden shop that used to be in our neighborhood before it was razed a few years ago. Frequently, every couple of months, we see each other at the Gelson’s grocery at around five o’clock. My excuse is that I’d discover at the last minute that I was short one or two ingredients for dinner and have to zoom to the market on a mission. I was chugging along pushing my basket one time, and felt somebody’s hand in my pocket and screamed — it was Connie — she was sneaking up on me. A shopper who saw her thought she was trying to steal something from me, and laughed when we hugged each other.

But — is it less common to see friends on the freeway? There approximately 2,000 vehicles per hour (vph) per lane* in rush hour – cars full of strangers, and it seems unlikely that I would see anyone I recognize in one of the cars; but I have seen my daughter in her car on the 101 westbound, which is probably not too unusual because we live in the same neighborhood, except I didn’t know she was about to go out at the same time I was. One time I was on my way to work in the morning, and I was driving along from Studio City on the 134 eastbound toward Eagle Rock. I had the radio on, concentrating on not missing my off ramp, and didn’t notice right away that two guys in a truck next to me on the drivers’ side were yelling and waving “Hey Wendy!” They were my boyfriend’s nephew and godson on their way to a glass installation job, and they recognized me in my car on the freeway!

Another time, I was on the Hollywood freeway, 170 North, and the SUV in front of me had a familiar name stenciled on it, Sharp FX, our friend Nick’s special effects business, except Nick had been living in China for over a year. I called my boyfriend and told him I saw Nicky’s car, and that I think he’s back home.

I was resting on a bus bench with my friend Gilda when we were on a shopping trip along Melrose Avenue, a popular retail area. We were talking with each other, and enjoying peoplewatching. She was sitting turned toward me and I was facing the street, so I didn’t see the boys coming close when one of them leaned over the back of the bench to give me a hug and a kiss. It was my friend PJ… and I recognized him right away, but Gilda didn’t know him, and she thought he was trying to steal my purse.  It seemed normal at the time, but as I look back on it, I go back and forth. I think that these experiences of bumping into friends in public, both in stores, on the sidewalk away from your normal neighborhood, seeing friends on the freeways, are worth counting to see just how unusual, or usual, they are.

Our paths cross by accidents of timing and geography — the phone rings and it’s someone you were talking about five minutes ago — but does that mean it can help you predict the future? Does that mean putting on the shirt you were wearing when you fell in love will bring back your long lost sweetheart? I can understand the surprising nature of unlikely circumstance — bumping into an old friend in a public place, or just noticing the wacky juxtaposition of a pattern of events that seem at once connected, and yet unrelated. Some people seem to have friends everywhere –  can they be the hubs of the six degrees of separation — the people who can hand off a package, and through a series of only single friend-to-friend transitions, transmit it from New York City to a jungle settlement in Zaire? I believe it’s true. There are people who know more than the usual number of other people, and people who nurture loose friendships that are the fiber of such human networks as these seeming coincidences are made of.

But I also understand that there is a “bigger picture”; that once we stop thinking of ourselves as the center of the universe, that it would be ridiculous to think that it is unusual that our paths would not cross more than once, or only when we make and keep planned dates. That seems to be an exaggeration of our ability to control our environment, or maybe an expression of our need to control it. Seen in a context of the randomness, the stochasticity of  all the possible experiences people can have, the tiny, random events that surprise us seem to be just failures of our own imagination, a misunderstanding of the depth of time and the size of the universe. I am not sure what the message is – except that I will probably bump into you soon!

A Common Name

We were on the phone recently for almost 45 minutes with our friend Dawn who has moved to Northern California. We’ve been friends with her for ‘way over 20 years, and about half that time she was married  to a man named Jim, Jim Thomas.

Later, I was scrolling through an online bulletin board, and one of the messages was from Jim about Dan Ackroyd.

This past weekend, I happened to see a documentary about comedians who died young, including John Belushi, and included shots of him with Dan Ackroyd in the Blues Brothers… And the name of the man who posted the bulletin board message is Jim Thomas. So — that’s like a pattern seeking triple whammy. Of course, Jim Thomas is a pretty common name, like Wendy Hughes, that lends itself to coincidences.

Not a Trivial Coincidence

(Submitted by reader Donald Chesebro)

I watch hundreds of movies a year, much more than the average person, and take notes during most of them as part of preparing for an annual trivia contest in my hometown.  Thus, whenever a character drives or otherwise encounters a motor vehicle, I will write down (for example) what type of vehicle it is and what its license number is, if it’s visible.

Yesterday lunchtime, for no particular reason but for the first time in the over 15 years since I’ve owned my 1993 teal Accord, I wondered why I’d never seen anyone with my model of car in a movie.  I probably see another teal 91-94 Accord on the streets of LA at least once a month, but I’ve never seen it in the thousands of films and TV episodes I’ve watched since I bought my car (used) in 1995.  I figured it had something to do with Hollywood having deals with Detroit, or the like.

This morning, less than a day after I wondered if I’d ever see my car in a movie, I started watching the 2011 remake of “Fright Night,” the first movie set in the U.S. that I watched since framing my question (the only film I watched in between was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 the night before).

Four minutes into the film, there’s a ’91-’94 teal Accord parked in the driveway of the character named Doris.

[EDITOR: Meanwhile my car's bumper sticker is "My other car is a Nimbus 2000," so I probably would have seen my second vehicle the first night and made it even crazier a coincidence!]

Trucks Just Want to Have Fun

(Submitted by friend of the blog, Paula Lauterbach)

I have had my truck for about 4 years.  Sometimes I have needed to add water to the radiator, but the interior temp gauge never rose above the halfway mark.

In mid July 2011, I drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas (Remember…JULY) to attend a conference of atheists, skeptics, free thinkers and the like.  I brought water in case something happened because of the heat, but I had no problems.

Then yesterday (July 24), I drove a much shorter distance to Orange County to see a friend speak at a Christian Church and answer questions about what it means to be a non-believer.  Very nice talk.

Within five minutes of leaving the venue, my “check gauges” light buzzed loudly and my temp gauge was all the way over to the red right area.  I pulled over ASAP and used all the water I had for Vegas.  It made it to the restaurant I was going to next (and then a gas station for more).

Now my truck seems ok.  But I thought it was funny it was all fine and dandy traveling to Vegas to be near heathens and then had an issue after visiting a church!

[EDITOR: If this doesn't sound like perfect confirmation bias to reinforce my preference of Vegas over church, I don't know what does.]

Favorite Worlds Collide

At the end of 2009 I started contract work at Current TV in Los Angeles. During my first week there the premises in which they’re located held a company Christmas party to which I was invited. I ended up having a long conversation with one individual about science fiction novels, short fiction, and Escape Pod, my favorite SF podcast. He hadn’t heard of it, but was interested in checking it out.

The following day, on my ride home, I decided it was time to start catching up on Escape Pod as some changes in my life had cut down on my podcast listening and I was a few months behind. The first story I put on was entitled Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store, and as I was quickly informed by the moderator, it was (brilliantly) written by Robin Sloan… a then employee of Current TV.

So in the very same week I started work at one of my all-time favorite workplaces and had a conversation about one of my all-time favorite podcasts, both were tied inextricably together by one science fiction short story, which also immediately became one of my all-time favorites. The odds MUST be crazy…

Awkward Encounters

(Submitted by reader Heather F)

I got married a few years ago (and am now happily divorced), and visited San Francisco with my then-new husband on our honeymoon trip. While we lived in Washington, DC at the time, I am originally from Amherst, Massachusetts.

During out sightseeing we visited SFMOMA (Museum of Modern Art) and wandered around, hand-in-hand, like the oblivious newlyweds we were. But our bliss was suddenly derailed when we ran smack into a man I hadn’t seen in five years, when I lived in Massachusetts… where we’d had a rather intense affair.

The odds were clearly crazy, and there just aren’t enough Dear Abby columns available to tell you how to introduce your new husband (who has a jealous streak) to an ex-lover who you’ve always wished you could’ve had just a few more nights with…

[EDITOR: The same thing happened to me in San Francisco, although instead of a new married partner it was a sandwich, and instead of an ex-lover it was a restaurant that served another delicious sandwich. But otherwise exactly the same. Especially considering the food poisoning from the first sandwich left me regretting that commitment...]

Doggone Perfect

(Submitted by friend of the blog, Kathleen Scott)

We’ve been talking about rescuing a small dog for about a year. Problem is, neither of us have dealt with a dog in an apartment or ever owned a small dog.  Would we be able to deal with daily walking, greater need for attention, and all the other not-cat traits that come with dog ownership?

One day we were running errands, talking it over in the car.  We decided that what we really needed was a test-dog but it had to be perfect – small, liked cats, house-trained, didn’t chew up the house, etc.

Got home that day to find a Facebook message from a friend. She’s going out of town and needed someone to watch her Pomeranian – who is small, sweet,  likes cats, is house trained and doesn’t chew on things.   We decide what we need, it happens!

(Although it must be said that we had been talking about rescuing a dog for a long time.  We really want a dog in our house and the subject is raised weekly.  It took an entire year before an ideal situation presented itself.)

[EDITOR: Personally I'm shocked at the odds of a small dog who's house trained and doesn't chew on things. I have enough gnaw marks around my house to be impressed by that one.]

Coincidence Curry

A girlfriend and I were planning to have lunch at an Indian curry restaurant one weekend day; she was going to pick me up about Noon, but was about a half hour late. We sat for about 15 or 20 minutes visiting and talking about her husband’s new play before we got into the car and drove the six blocks or so to a tiny, obscure Indian restaurant in the San Fernando Valley. We almost went to a more modern Thai restaurant instead, but decided to stick with our original choice of the Indian curry place.

We were seated and reviewing the menu when another friend of ours entered the little six-table establishment and we all recognized one another. He was with his friend who lived in the neighborhood. What was an unusual coincidence, besides the fact that we would have missed each other if my friend had been on time, was that we had just been discussing the theater my restaurant partner’s husband almost performed at (the stage wasn’t large enough), and our coincidental new dinner guest was the theater’s manager! Go figure the odds!

Travelling Travel Buddies

(Submitted by reader Ron F)

In January of 1978 I decided to take a trip to Bryce Canyon, in Utah as I had always wanted to see it in the winter. While there, I met a nice German couple at a canyon overlook and talked with them for a while.

Two days later, after driving over 550 miles to the south rim of the Grand Canyon I pulled into an overlook and was startled to find the same couple.

Considering the distance involved, the number of scenic opportunities along the ways, and the timing of it, I was pretty impressed by the long odds.

[EDITOR: We're happy to receive this story, mainly because we've seen too many horror movies to not assume stalking, chloroform, and missing body parts were next, and it's nice to know that some people get out of these situations alive.]

A few changes

We just made a few changes to the site. We’re now running exclusively on hamster-powered generators in order to reduce CO2 emissions, and we’ve added a fresh pine scent.

No, in reality we’ve switched the comment system to use Disqus to allow better communication and a more social feel to the system. Everything seems to be functioning fine, but please let us know if you have any problems. Of course in order to know that, you’d need to actually comment. Hint, hint. Also, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, know what I mean, etc. Essentially we’re asking you to please comment on the articles. Seriously. This is the Internet for Dagon’s sake. We know you have opinions and want everyone to hear about them, so come on! Tell us what you think about… stuff. And things, too.

In addition we’ve added a new checkbox to the submission page allowing people to let us know if they’d like their name mentioned in the post. We initially assumed people preferred anonymity, but got a lot of feedback that people wanted a personal connection to their stories. But rather than merely ASSUME you want your name displayed for all the world to see, we’re giving you the option. Aren’t we thoughtful?

We’ve also improved the metadata (blah, blah) so that an accurate description of the page appears when you share us on Facebook or Google+. Because sharing is caring. And caring is… nice…

And finally, as usual: submit some stories! We’ve got more in the pipeline, but unless you keep pumping them out, we’ll run out, and that will make various people sad. I’m not naming names. But trust me, you’d feel bad if you knew. I’m tearing up a little just thinking about it now.