Rabbits in the Wallpaper

I have a weird double attitude toward the tenuous tenets of mysticism. On the one hand, I’m a hard-headed atheist. Scientists have investigated paranormal phenomena at great length, and there’s just nothing there. But on the other hand, weird things do happen.

I don’t mean rhe weird things (“miracles”) you can read about in a book. I mean things that have happened to me personally. Having nothing better to do this evening, I thought I might share a few of them with you. Make of them what you will.

Very occasionally, there’s a moment when the cosmos seems to be making a meaningful, personal comment about something I’m doing or thinking.

Now, the hard-headed atheist in me calls this the rabbits in the wall paper effect. The idea is, if you stare long enough at a stretch of wallpaper that contains nothing but randomly distributed blobs of color, your mind will soon see patterns. You’ll see the silhouette of a rabbit in the wallpaper, or a three-legged buffalo, or a clown with his head bent over sideways. The human brain is quite adept at finding patterns that appear to be meaningful, even in data that’s not meaningful at all.

There are sound reasons in evolution why our brains do this. Consider: You’re sauntering along the floor of the jungle, minding your own business, and suddenly overhead you catch just the barest glimpse of something on a tree limb. Your brain very quickly assembles the disjointed scraps of visual data and reports, “Hey, there’s a leopard up there getting ready to pounce on you!” So you run.

In reality, there may or may not be a leopard. But the cost of a false positive (thinking you see a leopard when there isn’t one) is trivial. The cost of failing to notice that those tiny bits of visual data do actually spell “leopard” is catastrophic in both personal and evolutionary terms. Your genes will not be passed on to the next generation. So our brains have evolved to see patterns and jump to useful conclusions about what they mean.

In modern life, most of us will never encounter a leopard. Wallpaper with random blobs of color isn’t too common either. But every day we’re likely to encounter hundreds of randomly distributed events. The probability that one or two of them will appear to be deeply meaningful is actually rather high.

On the other hand, here’s a story for you.

I’ve never had any great success in sustaining an intimate relationship. When I was younger I did have sexual relationships with several different women at different times. I was even married for a year or so. But for reasons that needn’t detain us at the moment, the relationship thing never quite made sense to me at a deep level. I kept trying, but it just wasn’t working for me.

I barely remember the name of the last girlfriend I had. It was 30 years ago. I think her name was Kathryn. We dated for a couple of months. I was living in an apartment complex in Cupertino. The last time I was in bed with her, it was a hot summer night. The window in my bedroom was open. And from across the walkway, from the open window of an apartment in the next building, floated the sound of a violin playing the melody of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

You may or may not know the tune. It’s kind of a chestnut of the classical repertoire. I had played it in a couple of orchestras when I was growing up. You may or may not know that the title, in English, would be “A Little Night Music.” But here’s the point of the story: The melody was being played, by that solo violin on that particular evening, very, very badly. It was pathetic! I had never heard a violin from across the walkway before, and I never heard one again afterward. But on that particular night, when my final attempt to be intimate with a woman just wasn’t working very well (and for the record, no, I’m not talking about impotence), the universe chose to serenade me with a truly sad, useless rendition of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

I felt at the time, and have felt ever since, that the universe was saying to me, “Is this what you really want?”

The thing about these weird coincidences is that they do seem to pop up at the most meaningful moments. Carl Jung called this synchronicity.

Here’s another story. This one dates back to about 1978. I was driving from Cupertino down to Los Gatos. A friend of mine had invited me to a party. I was mulling over, in a mildly puzzled way, the questions I’m posing in this little essay. It occurred to me, as I was driving along, that the scientific view of the world is, after all, just a bunch of ideas in people’s heads. The only place where science ever exists is in people’s heads. And likewise the view of the world as magical or mystical — it’s all in people’s heads. It struck me, then, that I could choose which view I would entertain.

At that moment, a traffic light ahead of me turned red, and I braked to a stop. Directly ahead of me was a car whose custom license plate read IM CHAOS.

I am not making this up. It really happened. The universe was telling me that what’s outside of our heads, what’s out there, can be relied on to conform neither to the strictures of science nor to the rosy wishes of the magically inclined. It’s all chaos. Beyond that, of course, the universe was commenting directly on what I was thinking. And why not? Chaos can do that.

Ready for another? This is one of my favorites.

You need to know two things. First, my mother was a bit of a pack rat. She saved my first grade report card, for instance. Second, during my years as a musician I’ve explored fairly extensively a variety of alternate tuning systems — musical resources in which there are more than 12 notes within an octave.

My first experience with these alternate tunings came during my senior year in high school. This was in 1966. Though still in high school, I was playing cello in the Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay) orchestra. A student who was a music composition major at Cal State had chosen to write as his senior project a piece in quarter-tone intonation; that is, with 24 different notes in each octave. He figured it would be easier to get quarter-tones out of a cello, because the strings are longer than on the violin so the notes are more widely spaced. So he wrote a piece for several cellos, and I played it in his senior recital.

I had no contact with this composer after that. Barely remembered that I had played at that recital. In 2011, my mother had recently died, and I was going through her things. I found a concert program from the Cal State orchestra, from 1966. It brought back a hazy memory. “Oh, yeah, that bassoon player. I played that quarter-tone piece in his senior recital.”

Less than 24 hours later, the composer not only emailed me but sent me an mp3 of the recording of the piece I had played. My email address is not hard to find; that’s not the weird coincidence. What’s weird was the timing and the connection with unusual tuning systems, which has long fascinated me.

These incidents were so meaningful, so personal, that it’s rather difficult to say, “That was just a coincidence.” I can’t quite buy the idea that it’s just rabbits in the wallpaper, because it seems to happen (again, not often!) at key moments. The distribution is not random.

What’s very clear is that this type of phenomenon cannot be investigated scientifically. You can’t take it into the laboratory and run tests in which you change one variable and observe the results. Such events are, by definition, one-offs. They’re not repeatable.

But then, nothing in life is repeatable. The idea that anything at all can be repeated is a fond illusion. Heraclitus said, “You can’t step into the same Nile twice.” Nor can you catch the same fish twice. It’s always a new fish. But I promise you, those aren’t fish stories. Unless the universe is deliberately playing unfathomable games with my memory, these things really happened.

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