The Rittenhouse Coincidence

Here’s another one for the books. When things like this happen, I have to wonder, is there a conspiracy of coincidences?

Last night I saw the movie The Martian. I liked it, but this post is not about potatoes and slingshots (you’ll have to see the movie). It’s about what happened later, in a sequence of events leading up to tonight.

b29f467fef4559042e682c14b9ea8fffAfter the movie last night, I did some of the usual post-movie internet surfing and landed on the odd story of Tallulah Bankhead. Her best film performance, it was said, was in the under-rated Alfred Hitchcock film Lifeboat. So I read about Lifeboat. The story for the film was written by John Steinbeck. The film was released in 1944.

So tonight I thought I’d see if I can rent Lifeboat through my cable service. Turns out I can. I watched the trailer. In the brief clip viewers are meant to notice that the guy who’s appointed himself in charge is a “Mr. Rittenhouse.” One guy remarks to another, with sarcasm, that he should call Mr Rittenhouse “Rit.” Not too remarkable. So far.

As often happens, I clicked some more, looking for other classic movies. In less than a minute I came across the Randolph Scott movie Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend. This caught my attention because it features Scott and two other actors I like: James Garner (of “The Rockford Files”) and Angie Dickinson (you know, “Police Woman”).


So I played the two-minute trailer for Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend.

The clip doesn’t reveal much of the story line. Randolph Scott is Captain Buck Devlin, recently mustered out of the cavalry. Sgt. John Maitland (played by James Garner) appears to be his sidekick. Devlin rides out of a small town heading west, with plans to return. Mshootout-medicine-bend-hs-sizedaitland stays behind for the time being.

After Devlin leaves, Maitland is seen managing some sort of transaction with the townspeople—swapping trinkets and such for weapons and ammo, it appears. A minor character steps up to the table where this is happening. He’s familiar to Sgt. Maitland. His name? “Mr. Rittenhouse.”

What are the chances that within two minutes of each other, I’d see brief clips of two completely unrelated movies, where in both a “Mr. Rittenhouse” is addressed by another character?

Maybe I have a name, finally, for the kinds of coincidences I sometimes write about here: “The Rittenhouse Coincidence.”

What Do William Gladstone and Little Big Man Have in Common?

I don’t get it, these coincidences with no significance always happening to me.

Allow me to illustrate from today’s events.

Around noon, I hefted my copy of Roy Jenkins’s biography of William Gladstone from the shelf, with the vague intention of reading some portion of its 698 pages. As if this would not be enough to occupy the few moments I could spare, it occurred to me that I might also refresh my memory of what Susan Wise Bauer says about reading biography, in her book The Well-Educated Mind.

Book Cover-Roy Jenkins-William GladstoneBook Cover-Susan Wise Bauer-Well-Educated MindBook Cover-Thomas Berger-Little Big Man

Not only had I forgotten what Bauer says about biography, I had forgotten that she doesn’t say anything about biography as such. Rather, she has a chapter on reading autobiography. And her guidelines are fairly specific to this sub-genre, with only limited application to biography in general. Still, my wandering eye surveyed the pages on autobiography. In there, she recommends several worthy examples. Among them is Mary Rowlandson’s The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration (1682). This autobiography Bauer calls a “captivity narrative,” as if this is a recognized sub-species of the genre. This was news to me, but it was plausible.

This evening—mind you, this was several hours later the same day—I was relaxing with a different book. I had ordered Thomas Berger’s novel Little Big Man and it arrived with today’s junk mail. Naturally, I began with the Introduction by Brooks Landon. It is mercifully short, so getting to the first page of the novel itself was relatively pain-free.

But now I come to the coincidence that occasions this post.

It was entirely coincidental when I read Brooks Landon’s opinion that this novel is “a literal model of the traditional ‘captivity narrative'” (page xvi).

There it was again—”captivity narrative”—twice in one day, with no recollection of prior encounters with the term. Certainly, the term is not (or was not) a part of my active vocabulary. So why, with no real familiarity of the term, did I encounter two uses of it in such a disconnected sequence of events, in two books, one a work of non-fiction and the other a novel—all within the space of a few hours?

What difference does it make? you ask. But that’s the point, you see. It makes no difference. It just happened. It was a coincidence of no consequence!

But coincidences often are thought to be consequential just in the nature of the case. And so it is doubly puzzling that inconsequential coincidences should happen so often.

Fx’s “The Bridge,” Bill O’Reilly, and Me—Another Odd Coincidence

This afternoon I heard a radio announcement that the season premiere of Fx’s “The Bridge” airs tonight. I thought I might tune in. So I settled into my easy chair and flipped on the TV. Bill O’Reilly was waxing eloquent and I was reaching for my TimeWarner Cable guide to find the Fx channel. I paused, however, to listen to O-Reilly’s customary interview with Dennis Miller, often the only worthwhile segment on “The Factor.”

Dennis signed off and I recalled my task—to find where I can get Fx on my TV. I scanned the column of station numbers. And just as my eye landed on “Fx,” I heard Bill O’Reilly actually say “Fx.” I’m not making this up. O’Reilly then went on to remind his audience—that would be me (in a manner of speaking)—that “The Bridge” airs tonight.

Bill O’Reilly is a talented man. But his ability to read my mind, and his inclination to say something about it on national TV, is uncanny.


Footnote: Speaking of coincidences, the timing of tonight’s premiere of “The Bridge” could not be better. This is a series about border crossings between Mexico and the U.S. Today there’s as much coverage of our urgent border dilemma as there is of the imminent threat of an Israeli ground invasion into Gaza. Border crossings are making news in more ways than one. And that’s a memo.

Paul Theroux and Little Dorrit at the Crossroads—Another Coincidence

This evening the three of us (my wife, our older daughter, and I) were engaged in that familiar challenge of agreeing on a movie to watch. My wife cautiously proposed “Little Dorrit.” I was glad to let our daughter veto this one. As they contemplated the remaining possibilities, which did not seem to improve, I settled into a chair and resumed my reading of Paul Theroux’s celebrated travelogue The Great Railway Bazaar. Soon I was sufficiently reconciled to this alternative, and I hardly noticed when the ladies went downstairs and got their movie on.

The early pages of Theroux recount his ride on the Orient Express, setting out in Switzerland and making his way, with stops at Milan and Venice, to Yugoslavia. Within a few minutes of reading, it occurred to me that the tunnel called “the Simplon,” described on page 17, greatly resembles the tunnel we passed through by train some years ago, going from Grenoble through the alps into Italy to make a connection in Milan. I savored these pages with greater pleasure, thinking of that trip we so enjoyed (on a more satisfactory train, I believe).

A few pages later Theroux was reporting his observations about passengers as they boarded and de-boarded at various stations. On page 24 he explains how he managed to extricate himself from the pleasantries of conversation with a ragtag group of fellow travelers and retire to his cabin. He writes, “I said good night and went to bed to read Little Dorrit.”

The coincidence is notable, don’t you think? Not significant, but notable. Little Dorrit has seldom made an appearance in any of my reading or conversation with others. But tonight she strikes twice, in the most unlikely of ways. What does she conspire to accomplish by her double-appearance?

I only hope the coincidence does not augur financial ruin in our household. (You may need to refresh your memory of the plot in Charles Dickens’ novel.) It does remind me of Arthur Clenham’s curious experience at the “Circumlocution Office,” where the story’s hero seeks to find answers within a hopelessly confused tangle of papers. In chapter 10 of Little Dorrit, Arthur is referred to this Office with these words: “The question may have been, in the course of official business, referred to the Circumlocution Department for its consideration.” One knows immediately that Arthur’s prospects for finding the answer to his burning question are not promising.

The Tale of the Missing iPhone

JetBlue Tail (N556JB; "Betty Blue")

JetBlue Tail (N556JB; "Betty Blue") (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Act I

I was returning home from a speaking trip on JetBlue Airways (Seattle to Long Beach) yesterday when my iPhone went missing. On the plane I switched off the phone before the plane pulled away from the gate. During the flight I managed to get some sleep and do some reading on my iPad. When our plane landed in Long Beach I prepared to stuff my phone and iPad into my carry-on and discovered that my phone was missing. I did all the searching that was possible in the cramped quarters of a plane-load of people as we taxied to the terminal. No luck. (Or, as some in England would say, “No joy.” In military air intercept, “no joy” is code meaning “I have been unsuccesful.”)

I resolved to wait until we reached the gate, and everyone else had de-planed, before resuming my search. I mentioned to the passengers adjacent to me that I couldn’t find my phone. They wished me luck and joined the ranks of exiting passengers.

Now I was confident I would find the phone. I checked under the seats, under the cushions, in the seat-back pocket (again). I went through all of my on-flight gear. I re-checked my pockets. Flight attendants came offering their assistance. The captain of the flight joined us in our search. He called my number to see if that would help us locate the phone, but I was sure I had turned it completely off. (Imagine being busted by the flight’s captain under these circumstances!) The cleaning crew boarded the plane, and they joined our search. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

They suggested that I go directly to the baggage claim service office and file a missing item claim. I left, finally, and they, I suspect, breathed a sigh of relief to be done with me. Before going to the baggage service office I found a JetBlue agent at the gate and described my plight. She got on her radio and asked somebody important to get on the plane check once more for me. We heard back that it was not to be found. (No surprise there.)

Long Beach Airport

Long Beach Airport (Photo credit: Konabish)

So I made my way to baggage service. The kind lady in the office took down my information. But by this time I had reluctantly concluded that my phone had been taken by someone on the plane. The captain himself had told me, “It happens.”

As we concluded the paperwork, which was surprisingly uncomplicated, the service agent suggested that I call the baggage claim for JetBlue at the Portland airport sometime around 9:30 p.m., when the same plane was scheduled to land there. It was possible, she said, that my iPhone would be discovered during the next flight and be turned in by some conscientious passenger or a flight attendant. As a philosopher, I’m well aware of logical possibilities. But I wasn’t sure that this was physically possible (or sociologically likely).

Act II

I drove home and made the call at 9:30. No one answered, so I left a message. I had now resigned myself to the fact that my phone was gone forever and that I would now need to sort out what to do about the data on the phone and arrange to get a new phone.

Of course, I was tired from the weekend and the journey home. So I flopped down in front of the TV in search of something to watch for an hour or so. I recalled seeing on JetBlue television during our flight that Kiefer Sutherland was in a new TV series called “Touch.” For some reason this was news to me. So I flipped over to my Apple TV and searched for the series. Behold, there it was. So I downloaded the first episode and put my feet up to watch “Touch” for the first time.

I’m used to odd coincidences happening with remarkable frequency in my life. Another one soon presented itself. The show began with a businessman looking frantically for his lost phone—at an airport. (I’m pretty sure it was not the Long Beach airport.) I said to my wife, “I just started watching this show and it begins with a man who lost his phone at an airport. And the whole TV series is about coincidences!”


Shortly into the episode I got a phone call from JetBlue in Portland responding to my message. I was surprised that I would hear from them when my phone was actually permanently lost. (I shouldn’t have been so surprised, since I was now very impressed with their customer service.) The agent there asked me a couple of questions, like “What kind of phone did you lose?” “What seat were you in?” Then she said, “We have it here.”

Before, I was baffled. But now I was dumbfounded.

I asked her where exactly they had found it, and she said she didn’t know. “Somewhere on the plane.”

We then made arrangements to FedEx the silly thing back to me. Of course, this would cost me about $30. Too bad none of us could locate the phone before it left Long Beach. But at least I’m not blaming an anonymous passenger for stealing my phone. And I’m not spending my day cancelling the data and getting a new phone.


It was a little unusual that I couldn’t find the phone before landing. It was baffling when a half dozen people looking for it with considerable zeal could not find it. But what do you call it when it turns up in Portland?

And what do you call it when you just happen to switch on a TV show that depicts a passenger frantic about finding his lost smart phone?

A coincidence? Hmm.

Mark Twain said that the chief difference between writing fiction and non-fiction is that fiction has to be believable. I heard that on the radio . . . while driving home from the airport last night.

Another Small Coincidence? The X-Men: First Class, a Photo of Einstein, and a 1959 Book by C. Broad

C. D. Broad (1887-1971)

I’ve written before of odd coincidences and their possible significance. These happen with remarkable regularity. Here’s the latest.

While in San Diego a week ago I visited a second-hand bookshop and bought several books. Tonight I switched on the movie The X-Men: First Class, rented on my Apple TV, and settled in to catalog the books I bought by entering useful data in my “Delicious Library” database. I was entering subject topics for the book Scientific Thought, by C. D. Broad (1959), and typing in “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity” when I looked up, two minutes and twenty-four seconds into the movie, to see a photo of Albert Einstein displayed on a young boy’s nightstand.

I just happened to be holding in my hand a book that treats the general theory of relativity at the same precise moment that there appeared on the TV screen a photo of Einstein, only visible for about two seconds.

I won’t speculate on the possible significance of this. All I want to do is make a record of this coincidence and ask, “How often does this sort of thing happen to you?”

Coincidences of Life – Ender’s Game and a UPS Truck

UPS Truck . . . without a driver

This afternoon I was waiting at a red light (northbound on Palm at Central in Brea, CA, if the coordinates matter) and listening to the audio-book for the sci-fi novel Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. Just as the light turned green, one character said to the other, “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service.”

This struck me as odd, showing up in a work of science fiction. But stranger still, as I shifted my motorcycle into second, a UPS truck passed me in the intersection going south.

Was it a coincidence? Of course it was. It was quite literally the coinciding of an auditory reference from one source and a visual reference from another source to the same company, UPS. These sensory experiences occurred simultaneously. They each conveyed information, and the information conveyed referred to the same thing. I heard a guy say through my headset, “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service” just as I waved to a guy driving a truck for the United Parcel Service. (Well, actually, I didn’t wave.)


Sort of.

The Merriam -Webster Dictionary defines “uncanny” in this way: “seeming to have a supernatural character or origin,” or “being beyond what is normal or expected: suggesting superhuman or supernatural powers.”

The concurrence of two causally unrelated references to the same informational content attracts our attention. It is so incredibly unlikely that this would happen, it seems almost to have been planned. Was it planned? And if so, who arranged it? It might take superhuman or supernatural powers to make it happen just so. What other explanation could there be?

“Coincidence,” we say, with palpable matter-of-factness. But of course it’s a coincidence. Saying so merely reports an observation of fact. The real question is, what kind of coincidence is it? What is the explanation for this coincidence?

We do explain coincidences in various ways. Sometimes we say, “It was just a coincidence.” By this we mean that there’s nothing more to it than that, a mere coincidence, with no deep explanation. There is no intelligible cause, and no intelligent agent, involved. There is no meaningful answer to the question, “Why did this happen?”

But the question does present itself. It does to me, anyway. Trivial coincidences like this happen in my experience with remarkable frequency. I say “trivial” because I infer no special significance when they happen. And yet it is both remarkable each time it happens and remarkable that it happens as often as it does.

Why is it remarkable if the coincidence is trivial? It’s remarkable because the concurrence is so improbable. The degree of improbability varies depending on the specific character of the information presented. But the improbability of the concurrence does not, as such, warrant attribution of some special significance.

Why not?

The answer, I think, is two-fold. First, we can think of no special reason why the elements in our experience have occurred together. (Note: No one else in the intersection, I believe, actually heard or thought of the words “United Parcel Service” at that moment.) Second, we can identify no  causal mechanism that would ensure that they did occur together. In other words, there is no apparent point in their concurrence, and no obvious causal account of their concurrence. If we thought their concurrence served some purpose, we would naturally be curious about the cause. And if nothing else will serve, we might say that the cause was superhuman and personal. Given a general reluctance to attribute causes to occult entities, we require that a coincidence be specially significant. Also, if the concurrence was caused for our benefit, then we should find some benefit in their concurrence. That is, if we who experience the coincidence were meant to experience it, then there was some reason why it happened and why it happened in our experience. And this suggests that we should be capable of discerning that purpose.

What purpose could possibly have been served by the coincidence I experienced on my way home this afternoon? Nothing comes to mind. “It’s just a coincidence.”

But wait, now that I think that thought, I recall that there was a UPS package for me when I arrived home not two minutes later. Was the coincidence a warning, then? It certainly didn’t have that effect on me when it happened. In fact, when it happened, my thought was, This is something I could blog about. And in retrospect it doesn’t seem that a warning was required. The contents of the package were innocuous. Some clothing I had ordered. I don’t know if it matters, but the package wasn’t waiting on the front porch, as if it had just been delivered by the very same UPS truck. It had been carried in by another member of my household who wasn’t home. (I know she wasn’t home because no one was home. And I know it was a she because I’m the only he in the household. Aren’t you impressed with my awesome powers of deduction?)

I suppose now I might take care trying on the clothing that was delivered. But I can’t seriously entertain the notion that I’m in some kind of danger.

If there was a message, it was totally lost on me.

Could there be some other purpose, completely unrelated to my goals or interests, so that the purpose might be achieved quite apart from my cognizance of it?

(c) 2009 Katherine Gehl Donovan

Sure. A minor demon might have been taunting some innocent angel with her powers of manipulation, claiming to be able to cause me to hear “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service” and, at the same precise moment, cause me to see a guy driving a truck for the United Parcel Service.

In that event, would it really matter whether I recognized the concurrence of the appearance of a UPS truck just as I was hearing that bit of fictional dialogue? I can imagine a neophyte angel thinking, How did you do that? What if the line I’ve quoted from the story isn’t actually in the novel?

And what if there wasn’t really a UPS truck crossing the intersection in the opposite direction? Maybe the demon’s game was to present me with visual and auditory data that did not correspond with objects matching the data. Who knows what minor demons are capable of?

The point is, if there was a purpose in the coincidence, I have no idea what it was, and this makes it less likely that, if there was a purpose, realization of that purpose depended on my discerning that purpose.

Now, what do I actually believe? Do I believe there was a purpose in the coincidence? I do not. But this is imprecise. Not believing that there was a purpose is not the same as believing there was no purpose. I might simply be agnostic about whether the coincidence served some purpose.

So am I agnostic? No. I believe that no purpose was served.

I should have a reason for believing this, shouldn’t I?

My chief reason for believing that no purpose was served by the event is that attributing a reason does not comport with my worldview. Or rather, my worldview provides no basis for attributing a reason for the coincidence.

What we make of coincidences often is a matter of worldview commitments. Some coincidences do, for me, invite an inference to the agency of some superhuman or supernatural agent. Apparent answers to prayer, for example.

Here’s a question for fellow theists who believe that God exists and is a personal being who created the universe and sustains it in existence, others like me who affirm a doctrine of meticulous divine providence:

How do you decided whether this or that ‘coincidence’ is the occurrence of an event serving some special purpose intended by a superhuman or supernatural being?

Bonus Question: Is the angel/demon image posted here too provocative? Is it poor judgment to use it here?

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