This past Sunday, September 23, I was in Taichung with my wife, niece, and nephew, and as is our habit, we stopped by Mollie Used Books after dinner. I picked up several books, including Beyond Coincidence by Martin Plimmer and Brian King. After we’d finished at the bookstore, the others wanted to look around Sogo Department Store, a prospect which interested me not at all, so I volunteered to wait outside on a bench and watch everyone’s bags so they could shop unencumbered. Wouldn’t I be bored? “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ve got a whole bag of books right here.” I sat down on the bench and opened up Beyond Coincidence.
I’ve never spent much time hanging around outside Sogo, so I was unaware that every hour on the hour the big clock over the front door disgorges a bunch of tiny clockwork musicians and plays “It’s a Small World After All.”
It did this at 8:00, while I was sitting there reading Beyond Coincidence — a book which has not one but two chapters called “It’s a Small World,” plus two more called “It’s a Too Small World” and “It’s a Small Multi-dimensional Universe,” respectively. I hadn’t yet reached any of those chapters when the clock did its thing, but I had already glanced at the table of contents and knew that I was reading a book that was positively packed with small worlds — so it was weird when I noticed what song was playing.
The next day I was again reading Beyond Coincidence. One of the coincidences reported in the book had to do with Richard Parker, a cabin boy who survived a shipwreck along with three of his shipmates. The other three survivors ended up killing Parker and eating him. The coincidence is that, nearly 50 years before this, Edgar Allan Poe had written a story about four shipwrecked men, one of whom — a cabin boy named Richard Parker — was killed and eaten by the others.
As I read this, I thought, “Richard Parker — hey, wasn’t that the name of the tiger in Life of Pi? So that’s where the name came from.”
The day after that (today, Tuesday the 25th), I was online and checked the Wikipedia page for Life of Pi just to confirm that I had remembered correctly and that the tiger’s name was in fact Richard Parker. It was, and the article mentioned that Martel had gotten the name from the Poe story. I also glanced at the “Reception” section of the Wikipedia article and read that President Obama had written to the author to praise the novel as “an elegant proof of God.”
This evening I was washing some dishes in the kitchen and letting my mind wander. I thought about how I hadn’t posted anything on my blog for a while, and how I was in the middle of a series of posts about proofs of God. That made me think of the President’s comment, and I thought, jokingly, “Hey, I can add that to my list of proofs.” I started to imagine how I could reduce the novel to a series of numbered points: “A boy survives for months on a lifeboat with a tiger … he meets some meerkats … therefore there is a God!”
In the middle of this train of thought I stepped into the living room to see what my wife was up to, and saw that she was watching TV — something about meerkats. Then a tiger appeared on the screen, then a zebra swimming, then an Indian boy in a boat, and suddenly I realized what I was watching! This was the first I had seen or heard of a Life of Pi film in the works (though I should have noticed the disambiguation notice at the top of the Wikipedia article), and I saw it just as I happened to be thinking about the novel — a novel I hadn’t read or thought about in a good six years.
Update: When I clicked “publish” for this post, I got, as usual, a screen from WordPress telling me I had successfully published the post and giving me a random quote. Here’s a partial screenshot:
That’s right. The quote is: “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes,” from Agatha Christie. This for a post in which I describe thinking about a book while washing the dishes.
Quoting Agatha Christie is another coincidence, since Beyond Coincidence begins with an epigraph from the same author:
The name Abel suggests Abe L. — that is, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was murdered (though not by his brother), and he presided over the Civil War, often described as fratricidal. A number of coincidences link Lincoln to John F. Kennedy — Kenn and Abe L.
Another name that sounds like Abel or Abe L. is A. Bell — Alexander Graham Bell. The missing portions in those two abbreviated names also match quite nicely. Abe is short for Abraham, and A. Bell’s middle name was Graham. The biblical Abraham’s original name was Abram, and the name Graham is often pronounced “Gram.”
Bell’s statue also looks an awful lot like Lincoln’s.
This morning I was teaching an English class, and the textbook we were using included a short article explaining how to make a banana split. After the students had read it I asked one of them if she now understood the meaning of banana split, and she said, “Yes, in Chinese we call it ‘banana ship ice cream.'”
This evening, I was chatting with another student (different class, different textbook, different city), and we got to talking about bad machine-translated menus. I mentioned that I’d recently seen “legal toast” on a menu in Taiwan (for “法式吐司”; the first character can mean either “law” or “French”), and she said that in China she’d seen “banana ship” on several menus. “What was it really?” I asked. “A kind of ice cream,” she said.
As I now know, the Chinese for “banana split” is “香蕉船冰淇淋” — literally, “banana boat ice cream” (or “ship”; Chinese doesn’t distinguish between the two). I’d never encountered that expression before, and running into it twice in one day was quite a coincidence.
Though he himself was cursed to be a wanderer, Cain founded a city, which he named after his son, Enoch or Hanoch. The early Mormons apparently had this city in mind when they used Cainhannoch as a code name for New York.
In the original Hebrew, the name Cain is written with three letters: קין, usually romanized as QYN (or, with the unwritten vowels added, Qayin). The q represents not the “kw” sound of English, but a uvular stop, something like a “k” sound articulated farther back in the throat, and is sometimes transliterated as k or c. So the Hebrew spelling of Cain could be romanized as CYN (a Greek root which, like the Latin canis, means “dog”) — or, since Hebrew is written right-to-left:
NYC is New York City — a.k.a. Cainhannoch, the city of Cain. The “Big Apple” nickname also connects it with Abel, which sounds like apple.
The Cain/dog connection is also relevant to New York. Canine is sometimes written as K-9, and K is the 11th letter of the alphabet — giving us 11-9, or the 11th of September.
Shortly after 9/11, a prophecy falsely attributed to Nostradamus was circulated on the Internet:
In the City of God there will be a great thunder,
Two brothers torn apart by Chaos,
while the fortress endures,
the great leader will succumb,
The third big war will begin when the big city is burning
Nostradamus didn’t really write it, but all of it except the fifth line was in fact written before 9/11 (in a 1997 research paper by Neil Marshall) and is fair game for interpretation as a prophecy, or at least as a significant coincidence. Much of the interpretation is obvious — the “two brothers” are the Twin Towers, the “fortress” is the Pentagon, etc. — but it’s less clear why New York should be called the “City of God.” The NYC/CYN connection clears things up, though: CYN means “dog,” so God (dog spelled backwards) maps to NYC. New York as the city of Cain and Abel also adds another level of meaning to the “two brothers torn apart.”
Starting with the names Cain and Abel — two brothers — we find that they are remarkably similar to the English words can and able, which are synonyms. Abel is both an anagram and a homophone of able, while Cain is a near-homophone of can and an anagram of “I can.”
Abel’s name in the original Hebrew is Hebhel, but the initial ‘h’ has been lost in English. The English word able comes, by way of French, from the Latin habilis, the initial ‘h’ also having been lost.
The Latin for “I can” or “I am able” is possum. Obama used the first-person plural version of the same verb on his 2008 campaign logo, a version of the presidential seal with “Vero Possumus” in the place of “E Pluribus Unum.” This was meant to be a Latin translation of “Yes, we can” — though one might be forgiven for misreading it as “really a possum.” The presence of letter “o” right before “possumus,” and the big O-for-Obama at the center of the seal, makes the possum/opossum connection even more natural.
Opossum, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is derived from an Algonquian word literally meaning “white dog.” Translating back into Latin, that gives us canis albus — remarkably similar to Cain/Abel and can/able. (In fact, abel, an Old French word for the white poplar, is derived from albus.)
Dogs figure prominently in Jewish legends about Cain and Abel. Abel’s body lay unburied for some time (since no one had any experience of death or knew how to deal with it), and his faithful dog stood guard and protected it from wild animals. God also gave Cain a canine companion to protect him from any wild animals who might try to avenge Abel. (It’s not clear if this was a different dog, or if Cain inherited his brother’s pet.) No mention is made of the color of the dog. However, legend has it that to mark Cain as a sinner God afflicted him with leprosy, which would have made his skin unnaturally white (as in Ex. 4:6, “leprous as snow”), so the dog + white pattern is still there.
The white dog also appears on Fool card in the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot.
The fool himself is portrayed here as a wanderer with a knapsack, which fits with Cain’s fate as a “fugitive and a vagabond.” The fact that the fool is about to walk off a cliff, and seems quite unconcerned about it, also fits with the legends associated with Cain: that he was cursed to wander forever, that he often sought death but it was denied him. (The theme of not-really-dying brings us back to the possum, which is where this white dog stuff came from in the first place.) Traditional interpretations have the Fool card standing for beginnings, potential, possibilities — can and able.
And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem (Genesis 35:4).
And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me. And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt (Exodus 32:2-4).
And Gideon said unto them, I would desire a request of you, that ye would give me every man the earrings of his prey. (For they had golden earrings, because they were Ishmaelites.) And they answered, We will willingly give them. And they spread a garment, and did cast therein every man the earrings of his prey. And the weight of the golden earrings that he requested was a thousand and seven hundred shekels of gold; beside ornaments, and collars, and purple raiment that was on the kings of Midian, and beside the chains that were about their camels’ necks. And Gideon made an ephod thereof, and put it in his city, even in Ophrah: and all Israel went thither a whoring after it: which thing became a snare unto Gideon, and to his house (Judges 8:24-27).
In all three cases, the collecting of earrings is associated with idolatry. Jacob collects earrings as part of an attempt to get rid of the worship of “strange gods,” but Aaron and Gideon used the earrings to create idols! Aaron made his famous golden calf, and Gideon made an ephod — that is, a replica of the priestly garment originally worn by Aaron.
There are other links between Jacob and Gideon.
Jacob said, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved” (Genesis 32:30).
Gideon said, “Alas, O Lord God! for because I have seen an angel of the Lord face to face.” And the Lord said unto him, “Peace be unto thee; fear not: thou shalt not die” (Judges 6:22-23).
Jacob was given the new name Israel — meaning “he who contends with El.”
Gideon was given the new name Jerubbaal — meaning “he who contends with Baal.”
In the English-speaking world, the two names most commonly associated with Bibles are James (a form of Jacob) and Gideon.