I failed just one class in college: introductory probability. Actually, I wound up with an A because my failing grade was one of the higher failing grades. The material was difficult, but the professor made it unnecessarily challenging and the only way he could get students to pass his class was to grade on a curve.
Probability tries to understand random events, the premise of which sounded wildly interesting. But the reality fell short for me, because the professor spent the whole semester making us analyze the probability of poker hands, which felt so unrelatable. Flushes? Who cares?! I needed stories to grasp the ideas.
For example, he could have said: What is the probability that two big adult life events will happen to you on the same day or in the same week or the same year? Now that would have been a compelling exercise, with curious variables to factor in and out.
We could have used life expectancy data to determine our time frame or narrowed it to the years of early adulthood and midlife, perhaps ages 20 to 60. We could have created a list of assumptions, talked about correlation versus causation, and even debated how what seems to be a random life event—such as buying a house or starting a business—is far less random when you understand socioeconomic factors. But a deck of cards is a pre-defined set of 52 things, which means clear answers. You can get no such clarity around turns of fate in life.
Though I was miserable at probability—70 percent because I had a bad teacher and 40 percent because I hate percentages—I’ve been trying to figure out randomness my whole life. Mostly, I seek to know how events are connected. Two or more occurrences or memories link in my head and, because I’m a storyteller, I make meaning out of the link.
I’m remembering this now, because this spring marks exactly 20 years since a series of intertwined life events that all happened within days of each other. It was a week that shaped the entire trajectory of my adult life, and I think often about how just one thing being different could have changed it all.
In March 2002, I was single, debt-free, living in a one-bedroom apartment near Oakley Square, and had a good job at a tech startup. I was ready to buy my first home, and after going to look at several, I bonded with a charming little two-story just around the corner on Isabella Avenue.
On the evening of March 31 (it was Easter Sunday), I spotted a guy on Match.com. I stopped to read his profile only because I recognized that the screen name he used, AngelClare34, was based on a character from the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I’d read (and hated) in high school. Reading his profile, he seemed, well, like a jerk. Since I considered his chosen literary alias, Angel Clare, to also be a jerk, I e-mailed him to express my thoughts on this dual jerkness. He e-mailed me back the next day and said, “Well, at least we both like books.”
In addition to being the start of our digital communication, that Monday was also the day I made an offer on the Isabella house. I was giddy as I handed my real estate agent a check representing my earnest money.
On Tuesday morning, the sellers accepted my offer. When I got off the phone with my agent, I said to my boss, “I just bought a house!” He had a strange, surprised look on his face, which I understood more clearly when he called me into his office a few hours later and fired me.
I hadn’t done anything terrible. I just wasn’t very good at the job, because instead of the marketing job I thought it would be it was a lot of office management stuff, which I was only slightly better at than introductory probability. The budget was getting tighter, and they wanted to pay someone less to be a part-time administrative assistant. My boss knew he’d be letting me go by summer, so when I told him I was about to tackle a mortgage, he figured it was better to send me on my way before I signed any contracts. It was actually a kind thing to do, though I felt betrayed at the time.
I withdrew my offer on the house, cried into my pillow, and sent Angel Clare an e-mail saying I’d lost both my job and the house I was going to buy. He suggested we talk on the phone. The next evening, Wednesday, we heard each other’s voices for the first time. He had a slight Southern drawl, which surprised me. But it surprised me even more that I told him I was thinking of being a freelance writer. (Was I? It just came out of my mouth!) I could use what would have been my down payment to support myself as I built up clients, I told him. The plan seemed to form in my head as we talked.
He said that sounded too risky and tried to talk me out of it. I argued that I had nothing to lose, and in that moment—on the phone, with this person who pronounced shit like shee-it—I decided to do it, if only to prove him wrong, especially since he associated himself with an annoying literary character. By the time we met in person for our first date that Sunday—exactly a week from when I had first spied his Match.com handle—I had already started networking to find freelance work.
I built a freelance career—which is still going strong, thank you very much, Angel Clare—and we built a relationship, getting married five years later. We started our family, and he quit his job to be a stay-at-home-dad. And now, 20 years to the month, all I can think is that the whole story, with its strange moments of chance, is just so damn Thomas Hardy. His books are full of tiny twists of fate, like a letter slid under a door that someone doesn’t find in time or two characters just missing each other by minutes, and odd coincidences that cause life trajectories to pivot.
It seems, then, that the author who was a master of writing about chance and fate, Thomas Hardy, may have determined my own. Am I married to this man, with these children, living in this house, with this career, because my sophomore year high school English teacher had us read Tess of the D’Urbervilles?
I know humans tend to think that groupings or runs of numbers must mean something, even though the nature of randomness is that groupings and runs of numbers will occasionally appear. For example, I’m one of seven kids. My oldest brother was born in January (exactly nine months after the honeymoon, because Catholicism), but the other six of us are grouped: two in July, two in September, and two in December. I already know such a thing wasn’t planned, because there was nary a spec of birth control. Perhaps there were patterns of being amorous? Could that explain the groupings? My mom’s response when I asked once was a cross between a loud giggle and an eye roll.
I have a friend who teaches high school math. Whenever I’m trying to help one of my kids, she’s wonderful about answering texts, like, How does one find the surface area of a triangular prism? Naturally, I consulted her to learn more about the math behind determining when one thing causes another, since I know she uses statistics and probability to help students examine real-world problems like the racial wealth gap and the gender pay gap.
Understanding causation is key to being a critical thinker, but so is being able to separate two true things. My friend talks with her students about learning to discern when one thing causes another versus when one thing merely exists beside another. For example, she says, a student who struggles with anxiety and is also a top performer in school could wind up falsely believing that their anxiety is the main reason they achieve good grades. Not a math answer, but a life answer—which is what I’ve wanted all along.
Is my career success dependent on my desire to keep proving Angel Clare wrong? And did I gain a career only because I lost a house? This is really what I’ve been wondering these 20 years. Does forever linking the events of that fateful week serve me? It’s no doubt created hiccups in my marriage and in how I think about my writing.
Then again, I believe I have the royal flush of lives. I could tell you the probability of such a hand if only I hadn’t failed statistics with an A.