Paul Tough – on a moment of coincidence.
San Francisco, California
June 21, 2000
I was in a bookstore today, in the plays section, which is a section I don’t ordinarily spend a lot of time in. I was looking at Tom Stoppard plays — I’d forgotten he’d co-written Shakespeare in Love until I saw the closing credits in your hotel room Saturday night — like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which I read the opening scene of, sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor.
Then I picked up another Stoppard play, The Real Thing, and started reading it at the beginning of the first scene. There was music playing in the store, and at this particular moment it was “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” You know: you say tomato and I say tomato. Picture this: the song’s still playing, and I’m reading, and I get to the third page, where this man and his wife are having a disagreement about the pronunciation of a word, and the man, the character of the man, says, in a sing-song voice, “Let’s call the whole thing off.” And I read those words just as the song came to its jazzy conclusion, with the singing of that very line.
I looked around for someone to tell, but there wasn’t anyone, and I wasn’t sure how big a deal it was anyway. True, it was probably the only time that line occurred in any book in the play section, but it probably appears in other books; there’s probably a scene in some novel where someone jokingly sings “Let’s call the whole thing off.” And I don’t really believe in coincidence; I know the mathematical fact that yes, maybe hearing “Let’s call the whole thing off” sung while reading the line “Let’s call the whole thing off” is a one in a billion chance, but I’ve read a billion books and listened to a billion songs while I read, and they’ve never once synched up until now, so it’s just the law of averages that it would happen at this moment, on this particular afternoon. There’s no significance behind the song, or the line, or the play, or the sentiment; I shouldn’t take it as a sign to stage the play or buy the CD or, in fact, to call the whole thing off, or to decide on a thing that I might want to call off and then call it off, and give as my reason that I received a message in the form of the confluence of a line from a song and line from a play.
But it is a little weird that the scene I was reading right before The Real Thing, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, is actually about probability and chance and meaning; it’s the scene, as you probably remember, where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are playing a game where they flip a coin and if it’s heads Rosencrantz gets the coin and if it’s tails Guildenstern gets it (or perhaps vice versa; I can’t remember, even though I read it this very afternoon), and it keeps coming up heads (that much I remember), seventy or eighty times in a row, a billion-to-one chance, but as Stoppard has the characters discuss, there’s nothing so odd about that; each flip is just as likely to be a head as a tail, so it’s no surprise, really, that each one is a head.
What I wonder is whether life is better or richer or cooler if you go around believing in coincidence and signs and auguries, seeing meaning in every billboard and opportunity in every meeting. There’s something about that kind of life that seems young and hopeful. It strikes me as particularly collegiate, though that may be only because in college I was hanging out a lot with Howard and Beverly, two of the most superstitious people I’ve ever met. They used to flip coins for every decision, from ice cream flavors to graduate school. They worshipped randomness.
There’s a way of thinking about the world when you’re young, before you’ve learned all the rules of social order and acceptable behavior and career path, where you think that anything can happen, when you believe in ghosts and angels and UFOs and government conspiracies and true love, and everything seems connected, or at least sometimes it does.
Like when I went to see Hannah and Her Sisters with Howard and Beverly and Ashleigh at Loews 84th, and in the movie Woody Allen is dissuaded from killing himself by seeing a Marx Brothers movie at the Metro Theater on Broadway at 99th, which was in fact the very same theater where I’d seen the very same Marx Brothers movie a week earlier, with Ashleigh.
Or the time when I was hanging out with Lara and Mary and Alexis in high school, and Lara and I were going out to eat or something, and there was a deck of cards on the table, and as we were walking out I cut the deck and said “four of diamonds” and turned it over, and it was.
I can still feel the feeling that I had on each of those two occasions, of wanting to be part of something big and significant and magical, and half-believing that I was; of half-believing that I shared mystical connections with the people around me, as well as with Woody Allen, or Tom Stoppard for that matter. I don’t really feel that any more, even when I receive such a clear and obvious bell-ringing light-flashing sign as picking up entirely at random a play I’ve never read, by Tom Stoppard, a playwright who writes about coincidence, and starting on page one, and by page three a character is singing the song that’s playing in the bookstore.
What did I want? A character to say, “Hmmm, don’t you think Paul Tough should call the whole thing off?” And another character to say, “Yes, perhaps he should”? Would that have satisfied me?
Yes. That would have done it. But nothing less.