# Out Of The Cave

by Mike O’Brien

First, some good news: I finally understand the Monty Hall problem. Or, at least, I feel like I do, which is still a triumph of sorts, given that this riddle’s empirically incontestable answer tends to evoke visceral, intuitive rejections, even among people who understand and accept every step of the explanation. I first encountered this wicked little brain teaser years ago during my undergrad philosophy studies, and only last week did it click into comprehension, thanks to a fine article by Allison Parshall in the August 2024 issue of Scientific American. The explanation that made sense to me is roughly as follows: When you choose one of three doors, there is a 1/3 chance that the prize lies behind it, and a 2/3 chance that the prize lies behind one of the two doors not chosen. When the host reveals that one of the two unchosen doors has no prize behind it, the odds are unaltered in the sense that there is still a 1/3 chance that the prize lies behind the door initially chosen, and still a 2/3 chance that it lies behind behind one of the doors not chosen. The host’s action just collapses that 2/3 chance into the single remaining unchosen door. So, while the player’s choices are split “50/50” between two remaining options (stay with the already chosen door, or switch to the remaining unchosen door), the odds remain 1/3 (behind the chosen door) versus 2/3 (behind the two unchosen doors, of which only one can now be chosen).

I had come close to understanding this last year when reading another discussion of the problem, which expanded the scenario to 100 doors, with Monty opening all but one of the 99 doors not chosen by the player in the first step of the game. In both the 3-door version and the 100-door version of the game, Monty opens all but one of the doors not chosen, collapsing the distribution of the odds into one remaining choice (2/3 or 99/100, respectively). It was intuitively obvious that if Monty opened all but one of the 99 unchosen doors, then that remaining door was more likely to hide a prize than the one randomly chosen by the player at the start of the game. But the idea that the odds remain the same, while the freedom to choose the wrong door shrinks, didn’t click yet. Now it clicks. I thank Parshall for removing one small but stubborn source of frustration from my life.

And now, a little chronicle about my other problems and solutions.

I am given to harbouring underground for long periods, emerging when I damned well please despite whatever societal pressures or weltgeist convolutions might conspire to roust me prematurely. (I don’t remember enough from my college readings of Dostoevsky to tell whether this sentence owes any creative debt to “Notes From The Underground”. Let’s presume that it does, and is thereby elevated and ennobled). Not being subject to the bear’s peril of starvation, nor to the cicada’s biochemical imperative, nor to certain groundhogs’ molestation by aldermen impatient to fix the hour of spring’s coming, my surfacing is mostly determined by my opinion of the outside world. For most of the last four years, that opinion has been sharply unfavourable, especially on the measure of whether I was likely to end up with long Covid. I realized that almost everyone else had gotten over this anxiety and returned to “normal”, but I also realized that almost everyone else is statistically illiterate and wouldn’t know viral encephalitis if it jumped up and bit them in the meninges. So underground I stayed, figuratively speaking.

Prior to the plague years, I had fashioned myself into quite the social creature, working in a friendly and richly peopled arts community and volunteering for Montreal’s many summer festivals. This was a layer of personality and habit laid on top of a more introverted and solitary base. It wasn’t a facade, but it wasn’t a foundation either, and I would guess that I felt the absence of community and socialization less acutely than did the people whose hypersociality is innate. Starting in 2013, I had been a volunteer, then intern, then staff member (and, improbably, artist) at the Montreal Fringe Festival. (The St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival, to be exact, and to give due recognition to that Montreal brewery’s donations of liquids and liquidity). I also worked year-round at the Mainline Theatre, the producer and spiritual flame-holder of the city’s Fringe, located a stone’s throw from the famous Schwartz’s deli. When Quebec’s arts venues were shut down in 2020’s ides of March, it was unclear how long the hiatus would last. The 2020 edition of the Fringe that year was a rough and ready online affair, in which I performed a Zoom version of my show from the previous year (luckily, it consisted mostly of me talking and showing slides, so the transition was fairly easy).

The Fringe and Mainline community continued to hold together through regular Zoom get-togethers, for a time. The 2021 edition of the Fringe, which also marked the reopening of Mainline, was a mix of online and in-person performances. The former didn’t interest me because, without the uniquely intimate and immediate quality of live theatre, it was just another thing on a screen. The latter didn’t interest me because, between the middling efficacy of vaccines, the near-impossibility of enforcing effective masking even with a compliant public, and the “cozy” dimensions and “charming” ventilation set-up of many indie performance venues, I judged the risk of Covid infection to be far outside my comfort zone. I was aware of the artistic and social benefits that I was forgoing, but the parts of my soul that might have felt pangs of absence were already atrophied from months of lock-down. Deciding when, and how, to return to some version of pre-pandemic life was an anxious affair. What level of risk should I target? How much trust can I place in the good sense and conduct of others? And not least of all, what kind of self-recrimination would I inflict if the gamble went badly? Given my personality and the ingrained inertia of pandemic life, it was easier to stay away from the world than it was to figure out exactly how, and when, to return.

A friend of mine, with whom I had shared many a live show and volunteering shift in the Before Times, would regularly call me up to check in and chat, and lightly prod me to exit my hermitage. Aware of my balance of concerns, he proposed various outdoor events that accommodated my epidemiological anxieties. We would go for afternoon hikes around Montreal’s many nature parks when the weather allowed, and talk about our shared interests in British comedy, science history, and the general decay of democratic civilization. I still declined indoor shows and culinary outings. But there was a growing acceptance on my part, at first feigned emptily, then increasingly sincere, that I would eventually have to return to the world of other people.

I suppose the biggest step in that direction was compelled by the State, as I was called to the Montreal courthouse for jury selection last September. It was an unmitigated shit-show, as described in an earlier article of mine. But being crammed together with hundreds of random citizens in the bowels of the judicial system for nine hours undoubtedly effected some psychological re-habituation. After being excused from my civic duties, I wandered around the Old Port and through the Latin Quarter, up to the Plateau neighbourhood and dropped in on Mainline Theatre for the first time since the March 2020 shutdown. There wasn’t any great affective shift for good or ill, just a normal, flat sameness. I suppose that’s a good thing, suggesting that my conscious health concerns hadn’t deepened into a generalized agoraphobia. Either that, or years of constant anxiety and burn-out had left me deaf to whatever alarm bells my body was ringing. Either way, a good sign that I could still function among people.

I received an invitation this March to attend a significant birthday celebration for the head of the Montreal Fringe and of Mainline, and it landed just inside the “Go” zone of my subconscious Go/No-Go heuristic. A high reward quotient, given that the crowd would likely be full of the nearest and dearest of my artsy Plateau friends. A low risk quotient, given that it would be a smaller affair than some opening-night extravaganza, and its attendees of a more conscientious and caring sort than the average bear. (It is my experience that theatre people, especially indie Montreal theatre people, tend to hold themselves to an excruciatingly high standard of care for others. This can cause considerable anxiety and suffering on their part, which you might guess by seeing their work.)

And so I went, and had a fine time hobnobbing with my old pals as if I had just returned from a summer vacation. There was not much probing about my absence, and ready agreement and sympathy for the reasons offered. Some people in attendance shared their own struggles with social anxieties that emerged during the pandemic, either for the first time or after years of being successfully wrestled into dormancy. It was helpful to consider that their presence required more effort and self-overcoming than mine had.

Then back to the cave. I promised to not be a stranger when saying goodbyes, but what would that mean in concrete terms? My birthday party appearance didn’t inaugurate a return to my previous man-about-town normality; it was just a rare occasion where my presence was important enough to take on a managed risk. It’s not every week that one of my favourite people reaches a milestone year, while every week I am invited to some play or concert or community event. There is a threshold to be met, and the birthday party revealed where it is. Prior to that, it could be argued that there was no threshold, just a blanket refusal couched in terms of risk calculations.

In the following weeks the question of whether to attend this year’s Fringe bubbled in my mental background. I received a newsletter inviting me to the Fringe For All, a night of 2-minute teaser performances by artists appearing in the festival, taking place just prior to the start of the festival programming. The Fringe For All is a rather special event in that it presents a simple and uniform challenge to a complex diversity of artists: take and hold an audience’s attention for two minutes, and convince them to see your show. Succeeding in this is quite a feat, given the roughly one hundred options facing festival patrons. It is also somewhat sui generis as an event, since many Fringe shows don’t lend themselves to a two-minute excerpt or synopsis. So a wholesome, slow-build puppet show about self-acceptance might be promoted by means of a steamy, trashy (in a good way) burlesque number. (A chorus of “put your hand in me” is fitting to both pieces.) Or a pulpy detective noir about supernatural pro-wrestling capers might be promoted by throwing underwear into the crowd.

And so I went to the Fringe For All, saw some compelling teasers, chatted with old friends, and was slightly tilted towards taking in the festival, perhaps even volunteering again. It just so happened that one of the last volunteer orientations took place at Mainline, right before a show I wanted to see there (“The Kid Was A Spy”, by globetrotting veteran Fringe performer Jem Rolls. It was a vigorous telling of the story of Ted Hall, a Manhattan Project physicist and Soviet mole. An engrossing and revealing experience, as all of Jem’s shows are.) I went to the volunteer information session, and saw a desolation of unfilled shifts for venue managing (selling/verifying tickets, admitting patrons, and other such front desk duties). Knowing from previous years that this was a critical operational bottleneck, and still feeling a tribal affiliation with the festival staff (and covetous of the unlimited show pass that comes with doing a certain number of hours in that role), I filled a good chunk of that empty space with my name, and resigned myself to the near-certainty that I’d be filling even more spots as the labour crunch tightened in the latter half of the fest. And that was that. No more agonizing decisions. The threshold had been found and crossed.

It was a good Fringe, both for me and for the artists who shared in a record-setting year for ticket sales. I saw about two dozen shows, worked about 50 hours of volunteering, reconnected with many friends, and kept my mask on for all inside events. That was my policy, and sticking to it was easier than calculating the risks every time I entered a building. (I had been mask-less at the birthday party and at the Fringe For All, owing to the special circumstances of the former event, and to the cavernous volume and effective ventilation of Club Soda, which hosted the latter). There were other masks, some from the start, some emerging later as people got sick or worried about getting sick (or worried about getting others sick). Some theatre companies requested that all patrons wear a mask for their performances, to protect the more vulnerable members of the audience. My opinion about the heightened moral standards of indie Montreal theatre people survives intact.

There is an unfortunate epilogue to this story. No, I didn’t come down with a novel Covid super-strain. Some weeks after the end of my first in-person Fringe in four years, the remnants of Hurricane Beryl dumped between fifty and one hundred millimetres of rain on Montreal, causing disastrous flooding through the roof of the Mainline Theatre. I know there are many people more severely impacted by Beryl than I, but the timing feels a bit personal. It reminds me of the last time I felt like I was ready to shift into a new, more productive and rewarding chapter of my life, sometime in the early spring of 2020. (Maybe I should not tell the universe about my plans.) Mainline was already struggling with the pandemic’s depression of the live performance scene, so this disaster came at a particularly bad time. One silver lining is that they already had a fundraising campaign planned to address the pandemic’s effects, now with an expanded goal to deal with the cost of repairs. I’ll be lending my hands to help with cleanup and renovations, I suppose. I’ve come this far, why stop now?

(If you’re listening, universe, please understand that this is a rhetorical question, and not a request for new challenges).