Dispatches from Montevideo
Patrick Madden, of Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts, spent the end of 2012 on a Fulbright Fellowship in Uruguay with his family, teaching some seminars and writing some essays.
In Which the Madden Family Flies to Montevideo and Plays the Uruguayan Lottery.
I am a doting father, sufficiently hard working, eager to sing and wrestle with my children, but I must admit that there are times when I question the sanity of bringing six of them into this world. Just recently, for instance, as we made our way diagonally across most of the United States, from the Rockies to the Everglades, then south across the equator and the seasons in a day-long journey to Montevideo, Uruguay. Delays and frustrations of the kind we experienced are trying enough when all one faces is boredom and discomfort, but they’re increased substantially when one is responsible for the boredom and discomfort of younger others who’ve no compunctions about running amok shouting their dissatisfactions. And when the planned trip will last four months, and we’re carting all sorts of hand-me-downs for the cousins and school supplies for the at-risk kids my sister-in-law teaches, and the airlines have cut back their allowed checked bags from two to one and from seventy pounds to fifty, then we Maddens are a scene worth scoffing at: laden with backpacks and duffel bags, bulging roller bags in tow, carrying the two wriggling little ones, we struggled through security and exasperated from gate to gate. Did I mention that the domestic legs of our flight were canceled? We were placed on other flights, but our carefully reserved block of seats was lost, even from Miami to Montevideo, and we were planted all over the planes. After an hour-and-a-half on hold I was told that I’d have to take it up with the counter agent at the airport, or else ask kind strangers to switch seats once we were on board.
Ah, but what an adventure! More adventurous for the half dozen half pints we’d brought.
“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” — G. K. Chesterton, from his essay “On Running After One’s Hat”
And really, the success of a journey like this can be determined by answering one simple question: Did we get there in one piece? Yes, we did, and mostly in seats next to or near one another. When we arrived, finally, a little later than scheduled, a bit ragged and sweaty, with unbrushed teeth and morning breath, we gasped through yawns at the long-loved beauties of late-winter Montevideo: palms among pines, sun shining from the north, celestial blue sky dotted by puffs of cloud, a general buzz of motor activity, and (even unexpected things) a brand new airport terminal with all the latest technologies and amenities.
Having taken our time gathering all our belongings, we had deplaned behind the throng headed for immigration. When we found our fellow travelers, they were snaked into a long line waiting for their interviews and rubber stamps, so we braced for one more delay, but the airport staff took pity and shuffled us into a line for flight crews and the handicapped. I tried to avoid eye contact with the folks in the queue as we were called almost immediately to the glass booth.
As she made her way pleasantly-methodically through our passports, calling us one by one and thumping her stamp from inkpad to book in staccato trochee, our official stopped and smiled, “Who’s Sara?”
Sara raised her hand and eyebrows.
“My namesake!” the official beamed.
I glanced at her nametag, though I never really doubted.
“No way!” she sang as she studied Sara’s vitals. “She was born on the tenth of March?”
“Yes,” Karina replied.
“That’s my birthday, too! I can’t believe it. Not even if I’d wanted a coincidence.” She rummaged through her purse to show us her ID. Sure enough, she was “from the tenth of March,” as she said again; 1962, I noted surreptitiously.
We all raised our eyebrows and smiled, commenting on the rarity of it all, as she flipped to another passport, Marcos’s. “September 15!” she cried. “That’s my son’s birthday!” Much excitement followed as we played along. “And January twenty-eighth!?” She had found James’s. “That’s when my father was born. No; I mean, no. This is just too much!” We carried on our accompaniment, but really, there was nowhere else to go. We’d already reached maximum excitement.
She hadn’t been paying attention to dates before she noted Sara’s, so she quickly ran through the rest of the family’s, saying aloud each birth date, but she came up empty. So that was it, then: three same birthdays between our family and hers, with the double correspondence: the two Saras born on the same day of March. From the three days she had 10, 15, and 28. To round out her cosmic lucky numbers, she asked Karina and me for our ages: 35 and 41. “Perfect,” she said. “I’ll play them in the Cinco de Oro. The jackpot’s up to 45 million pesos.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Karina, happy with the happenstance.
“And if I win, I’ll track you down and give you half.”
“Well, then, I hope you win.”
“I hope I win, yes. I mean, how wouldn’t I win? I swear, with all the people I’ve passed through immigration, this has never happened before. What a day!”
Call it a fluke or call it fate, the law of large numbers or the sporadic alignment of chance in a vast chaotic system. Work at immigration long enough, and you’re bound to meet a doppelganger, if only in name and birthday. A kid with your name crosses your path once a week, maybe, depending on how common your name is; once a day if your name is Sara. The question is whether you recognize what you’re seeing, hear a mother calling or see a document. And the statistical probability that a specific other shares your very birthday is 0.27%, very low. But gather a random sampling of people and ask them when they were born. Despite what your intuition might tell you—that shared birthdays are rare—with only twenty-three people, you’ve got a better than 50% chance that two will have been born on the same day of the same month. Increase the number of people to thirty, and the probability grows to over 70%. With only fifty-seven people, at least two will share a birthday 99% of the time. Among the conveniently estimated three-hundred sixty-seven people milling about the immigration checkpoint of José Carrasco International Airport around 10:40 AM on Tuesday, August 28th, a shared birthday was an absolute certainty. That the sharers would find each other in the crowd, well… discerning that probability requires a different algebra.
We are a pattern-finding species, perhaps none of us more so than the essayists, whose job it is to corral bits of raw experience into meaning without inventing rounded scenarios and uncanny coincidences. Our imaginations don’t supply the materials, but they make the connections.
“Men observe when things hit, and not when they miss; and commit to memory the one, and forget and pass over the other.” — Francis Bacon, from Sylva Sylvarum
The next day, once we’d mostly unpacked and some of us had showered and all of us had eaten our favorite Olympic sandwiches and pascualina and salami and cheese, Karina and her mother ran off to throw away forty pesos on a lottery ticket. We were sated, after all, surrounded by family, feasting and laughing and sharing memories and stories. The air veritably buzzed with the chaotic hum of all those children asking questions and making observations, pouring themselves soda from the refrigerator without asking, leaving the door open when they took their leave or made an entrance, doling out the kisses to grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, bouncing off the walls. If 10-15-28-35-41 weren’t our lucky numbers, then so what? So blessed were we in that moment that a donation to the void seemed a fitting sacrifice, a symbolic payment for the hubbub of joy, an investment in just a bit more, please.
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