Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Arlo Guthrie, twists of fate, Bokononism, the law of big numbers, and making a difference

I met Arlo Guthrie in the late 80’s, maybe 1987. I’m checking into the Holiday Inn in DeKalb, Illinois for a week of interviewing potential authors on the campus of Northern Illinois University. It’s about 8:00 PM on a steamy September night. The hotel has seen better days, but it’s the best in town. There is an outdoor pool. Out back, rail tracks and farms. You can smell the corn. We are both standing at the check-in desk, there’s no clerk around, and I look at him. Shoulder length graying hair, bright eyes. “Dang, you look just like Arlo Guthrie”, I said.
“Well, I am Arlo Guthrie. Pleased to meet you.”

I introduced myself. We chatted a bit. I thanked him for Alice’s Restaurant, Motorcycle, and Comin’ into Los Angeles. I told him about my friends who used to own a folk club, Juicy John Pink’s, in town and how I’d seen Steve Goodman there and how I liked his version of City of New Orleans too.

The hotel clerk finally arrived and we both got checked in.
"I’m playing a show tomorrow night. You should come by," he said.

So I did. He actually waived me in—no cover. Heck, it was only $10 or so, but hey! I enjoyed the show.

TWISTS of FATE, Bokononism, and the Law of TRULY BIG NUMBERS
I was on the road every other week in those days. A few weeks later, I was in Mankato, Minnesota. I passed a downtown doorway to a 2nd floor music club and spotted a sign “Arlo Guthrie, tonight 9:00 PM”. Of course I went to the show.
Here’s where things get odd. The next week, I’m in Ames, Iowa. Arlo is playing…
So for a few weeks, Arlo and I were in the same Karass. How this came to be, I can’t say. Maybe a simple twist of fate or some shared logic about routing a trip through the college towns of the Midwest put us in the same towns on the same days. I’m not a statistician but the odds seem long given all the possibilities. The law of truly large numbers says that with a large enough sample many odd coincidences are likely to happen.

"That a particular specified event or coincidence will occur is very unlikely. That some astonishing unspecified events will occur is certain. That is why remarkable coincidences are noted in hindsight, not predicted with foresight."--David G. Myers

Arlo and I went our separate ways. Last week, twenty or more years later, on a whim I traveled with my wife to Bayfield, Wisconsin. Arlo was playing at the Big Top Chautauqua, an music venue under a large canvas tent near the shores of Lake Superior. It was a fine show.The audience was old folkies, as you might guess. Monologues are as big part of Arlo’s shows as his music. Towards the end of the show he led the audience in a sing-along. If you want to bring a crowd of strangers together, get them to sing a song together.
Then Arlo went into a monologue that I’ll paraphrase.

“You know, a lot of people think the world is in pretty bad shape right now. Some of you are feeling pretty frustrated about things and wondering what you can do about it, or if anything can be done.”

“But just think of a world where there was no war, or poverty. No one was hungry or needed healing. Education was free and there was opportunity. People lived in peace with each other and were happy.”

“Sounds pretty perfect doesn’t it? But in that perfect world, think how hard it would be to make a difference. I’m thinking you’d have to be extraordinary, or a genius to improve upon a perfect world like that. How much of a difference could one person make in a world like that? It’d be hard.”

“So, I guess what I’m saying is that even though there’s a lot wrong with the world today, we can all be glad that there’s never been a time when it’s so easy for one person to make a difference. It doesn’t take much.”

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