The End of Serendipity

18 February 2016 18:54 

1. The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident.
2. The fact or occurrence of such discoveries.
3. An instance of making such a discovery.
– the American Heritage Dictionary

May your every wish be immediately granted.
Chinese Curse

This is not about the ending of the the movie from 2001, which although flawed, does have some qualities to recommend it: the lovely Kate Beckinsale, a great quote from the Encheiridion of Epictetus, delivered in a sad and funny manner by Jeremy Piven, and a nice Christmas song, Cool Yule, sung by Louis Armstrong. And I like John Cusack.

This is about accidental, unexpected discoveries; this is about the love of the hunt and the enforced delay of gratification, back when no playlists were posted on websites, and instead you called the radio station, finally getting through to the d.j, to ask what was that song that you just played, the one that went like this…. cover your ears. This was back before the Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor websites told you where to go, what to do, where to stay, and instead you just showed up in town with the chapter about Barcelona torn out of the Let’s Go Europe book you found under the chair at the Youth Hostel in Valencia (or as soon as you arrived in town you went to the tourist office, although it was probably closed until after lunch). It’s about flipping through the music at Tower Records on San Antonio and El Camino in Los Altos, when the store clerk puts on some music from a section you would never browse in and was not at all what you were looking for, and suddenly that album is in your basket. It’s about years going by before finally learning the name and artist behind a song.  It’s about that helpful book found next to the one you were searching for in the fourth floor library stacks, say around D203 (that’s using the Library of Congress system, not the Dewey Decimal). It’s about meeting a person you thought you had seen someplace before, you can’t remember exactly where, then after a little bit of thinking, just when you’re about to give up, you remember.

 Searching for Wes

In his review of Keith Richard’s memoir, Life, Dan Chiasson describes when Richards first met Mick Jagger (1960?), and Jagger had with him some albums by Muddy Waters and Chuck Barry, and Richards was blown away that Jagger had been able to find these albums. Chiasson remarks on the nature of that experience:

Anyone reading this review can go to YouTube now and experience Muddy Waters, or Chuck Berry, or Buddy Holly, or the first Stones recordings, or anything else they want to see, instantly: ads for Freshen-up gum from the Eighties; a spot George Plimpton did for Intellivision, an early video game. Anything. I am not making an original point, but it cannot be reiterated enough: the experience of making and taking in culture is now, for the first time in human history, a condition of almost paralyzing overabundance. For millennia it was a condition of scarcity; and all the ways we regard things we want but cannot have, in those faraway days, stood between people and the art or music they needed to have: yearning, craving, imagining the absent object so fully that when the real thing appears in your hands, it almost doesn’t match up. Nobody will ever again experience what Keith Richards and Mick Jagger experienced in Dartford, scrounging for blues records. The Rolling Stones do not happen in any other context: they were a band based on craving, impersonation, tribute: white guys from England who worshiped black blues and later, to a lesser extent, country, reggae, disco, and rap.1See High on the Stones by Dan Chiasson … Continue reading

 I love that paragraph, not only for the observation itself, but the writing: the part about paralyzing overbundance, and the yearning and craving and scrounging.

My sophomore year in college, 1982, while home on a holiday, I bought Wes Montgomery’s Live at Jorgies album at Union Street Records, right near the Torpedo Factory, in old town Alexandria (Virginia – not Lousianna, not Egypt). Soon I decided I wanted to get one or two more copies, probably as gifts for friends. When I went back to the recordlive store some months later, they no longer had the album, and were unable to order another copy. No other record store, even the venerable and long gone Penguin Feather, was able to locate the album.

For the next ten years whenever I went someplace, I tried to stop into a record store to see if they had Live. All the record stores I visited had a jazz section, and they usually had a section for Wes Montgomery, and probably had the albums Tequilia or California Dreaming, but not my album: I wanted Live at Jorgies. I searched record stores in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, New York City, Boston, and many smaller towns and cities in the Mid-Atlantic and New England.  I had still not found the record when I went off to study in Germany for a year. The search continued in West Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, Valencia, Barcelona, Metz, Nancy, Salzberg, Vienna, Bonn, Köln, and any other town where the train went and had a record shop. Nothing, nada, nichts, rein. I didn’t mind not finding the album. Every failure was just oil on the fire, something to do in the next the next town, in addition to seeing the cathedrals, plazas, paintings, and bars—tally fucking ho. 

I graduated from college, moved to the Bay Area, and the search continued. From San Jose to San Francisco to Berkeley, no joy. Even within the various pseudopods of Amoeba Records, right near the Shambhala Bookstore and the walk in ‘Get Your Chakras Rolfed’ massage parlor, there was no Live. I continued on like a surfing safari: Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, San Diego – nothing.

Fourteen years later in 1996, mid-summer, at a Tower Records on the upper west side of Manhattan, probably not too far from the Lincoln Center. I was back East for my father’s class re-union at West Point, and arrived a few days early to visit an ex-Californian, ex-co-worker. As we were walking around town, we stopped in to the record store. I first looked in the vinyl section, but no luck. Then, on impulse, I went over the CD section and found not one, not two, but three copies of Live at Jorgies. It was  paralyzing overabundance.

There was no joy, and it felt wrong, almost: that I had finally found it at all, that I had found so many copies, and most of all, in CD format. It almost didn’t match up. What should have been a moment of victory wasn’t. From then on,  whenever I went to a new town, I wouldn’t have to go to a record store. I finally got the white whale, the grail, but there was no glory. I bought all copies. And yet, as David Bowie noted, the taste was not so sweet.

Radio California

Two songs, two different times, I’m sure this still happens all the time.

I think.

Once upon a time, I spent a weekend in Yosemite with girlfriend and friends: Saturday was a rough and fun raft trip on the Merced River; Sunday was a long, hot, dry hike in the south part of the park near Wawona. After the hike we packed up, said good-byes, and drove west back to Russian Hill in San Francisco. She falls asleep in the passenger seat, and I’m hot and fried and gritty and happy to finally have my old school heavy leather hiking boots off, but there’s a long drive ahead back, five hours or so.

Leaving Yosemite it’s a summer night that can only be found in the American West: warm air, a warm breeze that feels only a little cooler with the windows down at 55 mph, the clear sky a gradient of darkening blues. I’m tuning the knob of the radio  in search of music to keep me awake, when I come across a low signal station with a stoned sounding disc jockey in what must be a college station. There’s a bit of music but it fades in and out depending our location: behind a mountain, down in a canyon, or up on a ridge. It’s an entire album being played, and just as the signal finally stabilizes, the hair stands up on my arms, I feel that squint smile when hearing something special: it’s not classical or jazz or heavy metal, it is music that fits the mood and the time and the place: it is the inimitable guitar of Carlos Santana playing Song of The Wind on the album Caravanserai. I pulled over, wrote down the name of the album on an In’n Out napkin, and then continued the drive West.

Once upon another time: I finished a fantastic one day hike with a great guy who would soon be my ex-brother in law. We had hiked to the top of Leavitt Peak (11,573 ft – 3,527 m), and I was driving back to the Bay Area from the town of Pinecrest, just south of Lake Tahoe. Out of the mountains, down the western slope of the foothills, on to the flats of the Central Valley. The sun’s almost all the way down; I’ve had a clear view of the sunset since I am driving West.

I tuned in Capital Public Radio out of Sacramento, and after a few songs, for the first time I heard the sounds of Freddy Hubbard’s First Light. The song is about sunrise and this was sunset, but that’s no matter. Not only was Hubbard playing that beautiful trumpet, but also George Benson joined in on electric guitar. The song has too many flourishes: flutes and violins and maybe a harp in there too –  like a lot of the jazz from the 1970’s, the musical version of wide lapels, ruffled shirts and bell bottom pants, yet in spite of that it’s still wonderful and nothing interferes with the clean horn of Hubbard and the hollow body guitar of Benson. After the dj came on the radio I repeated the song name to myself for ten minutes, until I got home and could write down the information.

The woods between the worlds

After many, many years it’s time to finally come clean.  In Mrs. Zuver’s fifth grade class, at the end of the day when waiting for buses or parents to pick us up, she’d read to us from various books. One of them was C.S. Lewis’s The Magicians’s Nephew. Every day she read to us about Digory and Polly and their adventures in London and other worlds, about the rings and the crazy uncle. However, Mrs. Zuver never finished reading that book because when she was about halfway through the story, someone stole the book from the Lower School library.

I did it.

magnephI took the book one day when I was in the library, no one was looking around, and there was no electronic inventory control to worry about, so in the book went to my red and grey duffle bag. So to all those who were there in fifth grade class, the future class of 1980, I apologize for taking the book and depriving you of the opportunity to hear how the story ended.

I did if because I was galvanized by the story – a fantasy, a marvel, not too heavy on the Christian themes found in the rest of the Narnia series. Mrs. Zuver was reading the story during a shitty time in my life, and the world Lewis created was one I could escape into – especially a place called the woods between the worlds: a forest of many ponds, and each time you dove into a pond you went into another world.

Later I would read the rest of the series (my favorite was The Silver Chair). But is it the memory of that first reading that has always stayed with me: the right book at the right time.

Over twenty years later, during a move, my mother wrote to me in California that she had found the stolen library copy of The Magician’s Nephew, and had returned it to the school.

Books on Crete

Do you ever wish you were a different person, that  could have lived someone else’s life? After I found out about him, for me that person was Patrick Leigh Fermor2See A couple years after the turn of the milineium I had been travelling through Greece, from Athens to Naxos to Thira (Santorini), then on to Crete: I visited the town of Chania followed by a visit to the village of Palaiochora at the southwest end of the island. On my second to last day there, I found a little bookshop, which sold used paperbacks left by other travelers. I didn’t find much that interested me, but at the last moment, about to leave, I came across a book called A Time of Gifts. The back cover summarized the story: the memoir of an Irish college drop out walks from Holland to Hungary in 1934; time_of_giftsand there was a little about the author: a writer, now living in Greece, well known for his capture of a German general during World War II on the isle of Crete.

Now I suppose it’s normal that if you travel to, say, Lander, Wyoming, you’ll find books about the locale. So maybe finding A Time of Gifts in a podunk (sp?) bookstore at a remote place on Crete wasn’t such a big deal, but holding the book and reading the back cover I felt a shiver of excitement at my find, bought the book, and stayed up the entire night on the overnight ferry from Heraklion to Athens reading A Time of Gifts. To be sure there are parts of the book that are a bit slow, but  mostly it is wonderful for all the adventures and carefree wanderings. Yet this story is poignant: not only for the glimpses of what is to come in World War II, but also because Fermor passes through a world that is gone forever. His journey would be impossible today.

When I got back to the United States, I began searching for more books by Fermor, but at that time they were hard to find (since then many of his books have been reissued). However, after rummaging through the travel essay section of the Green Apple Book Store in San Francisco, and finding nothing, I then turned to a stack of books on the floor, and there, about four books down, found the sequel to A Time of Gifts: Between the Woods and the Water.


So what?

What’s the big deal? Why so mystical? It took me a while to find an album. I heard a couple of good songs on the radio. And the same goes for the books.

Like Fermor’s walk across Europe in 1934, or as Chiasson writes above about Richards and Jagger and their albums, my puny experiences looking for and finding books and records in the manner described above are increasingly unlikely to happen today.  If you hear a song on the radio, Shazam can instantly identify it for you, and connect you to Spotify or some other service to make that music available. Or you can go to that radio station’s web site and look at the playlist. In your car you can bluetooth your media player to the radio and only hear songs from your playlists: you are no longer at the mercy of your antennae signal and a stoned disc jockey.  To be sure I have been listening to bring along music ever since I installed an 8-trac player in the back of my old British sports car, and since then I moved on cassettes, then CDs , all fine except I’m no longer exposed to the possibilities of something else coming my way.

It’s the same with books: most books, however obscure, can be found on the ole www, especially since Sergey and Larry started acquiring whole libraries, dismembering the books, scanning them, and putting them online. I found my second year German grammar in review book  as well as an old, obscure high school literature anthology, that dated from the 1950’s. After you find that book on Amazon, Jeff Bezos will recommend another five to forty books based upon what other people bought.

Things formerly done in the real world are now brokered through software and servers. All your needs can now be instantly met: music, books, you can even find those strange cartoons you saw on television when you were a kid, those where you wondered if it was a bad dream or you really did see a cartoon, say, The Mighty Hercules. Today you are curated by an algorithm that tells you what other people thought and what other people bought. There’s no more randomness and accidents (the good kind): a song on a radio whose station you were about to change; an interesting book that was put on the wrong shelf, but you happened to find, pick up, leaf though, then buy.

But perhaps the biggest killer of serendipity, especially for the young, is the digital pacifier—any screen you keep your nose stuck in, instead of being out in the real world. Before the rise of the screens, if there was nothing to do, the options were to go outside to play, to the cafe, to the library, to the gym, to the dock, to see what’s going on and maybe something will happen, maybe you’ll meet someone —who knows? Yet this going out has gone the way of the typewriter. Bored? Don’t dig deep, don’t do something, just have some digital candy. When you’re online you’re every where except the place you physically are. If you are on the internet you cannot imbibe the local life, be a part of the local atmosphere. Instead to you tap into a tasteless fountain, connect to the baby sitter web, a digital playpen too often of the lowest denominator.

I might be wrong

Of course there’s a bit of hyperbole here, a bit of hyprocrisy – not in the stories, those are all on the level, but rather the new technology. Certainly those of us of a certain age understand far better than millennials the benefits brought by the internet. On May 1, 1996 I placed my first order with Amazon (Thomas Landauer’s The Trouble With Computers: Usefulness, Usability, and Producivity) and I have been a steady customer since. After hearing a song on San Francisco’s KCSM (a jazz station from San Mateo County), I quickly looked up the playlist on their website and found the wonderful Cal Tjader (the album was Grace Cathedral and the song I Showed Them). Indeed what I’ve written about here mostly is the serendipity of discovering things—I’ve left out something pretty important: people.

In the Spring of 1997 I took a memoir writing class given by lecturer and author David Vann, who was teaching an adult continuing education class at Stanford University. As it happened, Vann was also a boat captain, and needed crew to help move his boat, so that Fall I helped him deliver his CT 48 yawl, Grendel, a lovely boat, from Anacortes, Washington, through the San Juan Islands, and down the West Coast to San Francisco. After that I lost contact with Vann, who went on to publish several novels, which have done quite well.

Fast forward to 2013, I’ve written a novel and some short stories, and it’s time to get professional help (for my writing). I find my way to the Editorial Freelancers Association web site, put in a few search terms (fiction, novel, short story), and come up with over 400 results. Me being me, there’s only one way to do it, and that’s the hard way: I’ll go through each of the results one by one. I do apply some criteria in that if any of the editors don’t have a website, I simply skip – unfortunately most do have websites.

After reading through a couple hundred editor entries I’ve written down about a six names, but not contacted anyone,  when I come across a listing: an editor who has worked with David Vann. Well, why not? She’ll be out of my league, but at least I have some sort of angle (that memoir class) for contacting her, and maybe she can refer me to someone. But the gods were smiling. The very first editor  that I emailed was Miranda Ottewell-Swartz, who lived in Virginia, near Charlottsville, was familiar with Floyd, Virginia, an obscure town where my brother lives, was in the process of moving to Europe, and most lucky for me, was willing to do a bit of work with a new writer. As it happened I was able to visit Miranda and her family in Virginia on my last trip to the United States back in August 2014, then again in Portugal last October.

Miranda has helped me with some short stories and I hope to get to work with her on the first novel, and I consider myself very lucky to have found her. Now, I’m sure there are other editors out there that would be suitable for me to work with, but nonetheless this is one of those cases where I’m not quite sure how this happened, but I’m glad I found her and grateful for the dumb luck that came my way.

Really wrong

I hope this doesn’t sound too much like a Richard Bach story. As inferred when looking for an editor, so is it that there are no doubt hundreds of people one could be happily married to, no need for any of that soulmate bullshit.

At the rock bottom of my first marriage,  implosion and explosions, craters and fissures and cracks, in one of those pathetic moments of ‘why me’ and ‘what if’ and ‘if only’, I point the browser to to see if there’s any hope. I’m not sure what I was expecting, and it’s certainly not a proud moment, but that’s what happened. It’s kind of weird, but what the hell. Enter criteria, search, then many results.

Wedding Day 2008

I doodle a short list in my journal, four or five names of women who look interesting: it’s something along the lines of ‘pretty divorced technical writer from Berkeley’; ‘single mother tri-athlete gardening marketing manager in Daley City’; data analyst Thai/French mother in San Jose’; ‘never married project manager at Bechtel in San Francisco’; and so on. But then with the same type of impulse that got me there, I feel disgusted, closed the browser, and never went back to the site, scribble over the names.

About a year of so later, Annie and I were out on what’s maybe the third or fourth date, maybe at Duarte’s Tavern, a Portuguese restaurant, coast side in the town of Pescadero. As we talk there’s something running around in my brain, but I can’t quite pin it down: some fleeting thought or memory, but like waking up from an intense dream, the more I concentrate on it the more elusive it becomes. Then, before the thought crystallizes in my brain, I ask her if she ever had a profile on, and I described the profile I sort of half remembered—she said yes, the Thai/French (Canadian) posting had been her.


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  1. Editor’s note: Much of what you are looking for for in your fiction is what you have here (and I don’t mean the bit about me!).

    Perhaps we’ll be discussing the subject further sometime later this year, preferably around a bonfire in the olival.

    1. I’m thinking real hard about this: the verve (not sure that is the best word, but should work) comes through in the journal. More on this soon.

  2. (Figures I would actually repeat a word in my comment! Proving that none of us can edit ourselves—but I’ll blame jet lag.)

    1. Look at the denominator of the amount of words you have written and edited, and I sure you’re doing just fine. But you’re right.

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