Whatever happened to serendipity?
Detouring off predictability's path
by Lynell George
Right about now, perhaps we're all feeling a bit like Elizabeth Bailey.Braced for it.New year. New page. Same story.
Long before 2005 was even a glimmer in the eye, Bailey wasn't too surprised to find that she was already booked well into March. Meetings, travel, presentations planned out end to end. It's been a long time since she could just sit back and see what chance might bring.
Bailey, 43, is up every morning at 5 for a five-mile run in her South Bay neighborhood. She's back in time to check her first round of e-mail at 6 and get her two young sons ready for school. At work -- she heads her own marketing and communications firm, 2B Communications -- she's "on the phone or writing or in meetings pretty much every day." Evenings, it's homework, husband, dinner, kids' bedtime at 8 and an additional four hours in the home office. Then it starts all over. Once, "I was really a take-it-as-it-comes girl. But," she says with down-to-brass-tacks firmness, "life requires more organization now." By necessity her days have become more focused: shopping at stores where clerks phone to alert her to new goods she might like. Ordering films from Netflix rather than wandering into a theater on a whim. Eyeballing a chain bookstore's "Just Arrived" table on the way to the cleaners and market.
For the culture's many time-crunched Elizabeth Baileys, coping means filtering. Scrolling through Amazon.com recommendations to find a book. Skipping the evening news in favor of a blog. Stripping curiosity down to a Google search.Yet there's growing suspicion that even with myriad options just a mouse click away, the world's gotten only narrower. Everything's available, but it seems like less.
Bidding on a Bakelite brooch on EBay isn't the same as discovering one at a flea market where you might come upon its priceless story, and the proprietor's. Looking for information online is worlds apart from wandering into a library and picking up a book from a just-vacated carrel or on a cart waiting for reshelving. And there is no tech shortcut to the rush of hearing a haunting scrap of song while in line at a market, a refrain that not only introduces you to music you love but throws open the door to another world.
The more we become members of self-selected tribes with their own newsgroups, catalogs and even TV networks, the less we leave ourselves open to serendipity -- chance discoveries, the unexpected. And the tension grows between the need to control unruly lives and the desire for surprises that are outside control. A question gnaws: What if the pursuit of things we think we like, want and need is actually cutting us off from the gifts that flow from randomness, not force of will?
Those who long for it, as Bailey does, sense that serendipity can be a doorway. It was Jack Kerouac's kindling, a promise that down the road, "there'd be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me." Some hear that longing and try to capitalize on it, finding a way to offer "controlled" opportunities for "planned" serendipity, as if control (or "simulation," for that matter) were just one more variation on the accidental. So it's somewhat comforting that in the midst of a culture that tends to narrowly catalog types and market lifestyles wholesale, those who rely on serendipity -- artists, writers and scholars -- most of all celebrate its inevitability. They see it all around, sometimes out of the corner of the eye. "It can be a crumpled-up little reminder," says Jason Bitner, co-editor of Found Magazine, a publication dedicated to the tossed away. "Some joy in an alley full of crap."
Fearful as one might be of missing it, or of giving up the controlled life that keeps serendipity at bay, those who make space for it argue that we're all bound to enter places where, in novelist Paul Auster's words, "Nothing was real except chance."
Open To Chance
In a goal-driven culture, focus and efficiency are highly prized. But someone like New York-based jazz clarinetist Don Byron will tell you that serendipity's circuitous route reveals gems disguised as incidentals. Like jazz, serendipity is all about what happens in the moment. It's about relaxing into uncertainty and engaging whatever pops up. As an exercise, Byron had been studying the work of tenor sax player Lester Young. "I've taken a year or years to look at a certain person's playing," he says, "and adopt some of that person's language to the clarinet."
It was just practice, a way to put together a foundation and to hear things in a different way. He'd learn the solos on an old saxophone, then "do the technical stuff on the clarinet, with no intent to play tenor on record," says Byron. "But a couple funny things happened up in there." During a quick trip to L.A., Byron wandered into a music store on Vine Street. "I was trying out the mouthpieces and I just started playing these Lester Young things and the cat who fixes horns there says, 'Hey, that's my kind of tenor!' He whipped out all of these nerdy mouthpieces that Young used to play and sold me one. "That was it." The sign he needed. He started playing saxophone for real, and ultimately, out rolled the Young-flavored tracks on "Ivey-Divey" -- some featuring Byron on sax. Last month he got word he's up for a Grammy. But even better, says Byron, "It's changed my clarinet playing and I have this other instrument that I'm interested in. And it's completely hilarious to me."
That sort of serendipitous push from the cosmos is what David Grinspoon taps into. "So much of science is exactly that. About finding something when you were looking for something else -- or nothing at all," says Grinspoon, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. For instance, discovering the Cosmic Microwave Background, radiation that's a remnant of the universe's beginning, occurred quite by accident. Two cosmologists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, had built a radio antenna in the mid-1960s to study the universe with radio waves. "There was this annoying hum that they couldn't eliminate and it was really frustrating," says Grinspoon. "They even thought it might be coming from the pigeon droppings to the point that they built traps for the pigeons."
What they began to understand was that the hum was coming from every direction, that these ripples of energy, were evidence of the Big Bang. "And here they were spending a good amount of time trying to get rid of it." In his own field, "We depend hugely on serendipity. Probably more than we'd like to admit," says Grinspoon, who studies atmospheric evolution, especially that of Venus. "You're sending this spacecraft up and you have to justify the cost to Congress -- the cameras, the spectrometers. We write up a detailed proposal: 'This is what we hope to find .... ' But really, we don't know what we're going to find. It's an exploration. Really, it's, 'Give us a bunch of money and we'll find some neat stuff,' " he says. "But that's the nature of neat stuff."
Or perhaps it's putting out a fire. "It wasn't like I woke up and said, 'I'm going to make a smoked-salmon pizza!" says chef Wolfgang Puck. No, he just ran out of brioche. "What were we going to do? Go run to the store?" Not with a high-profile customer waiting. "So I said, 'Just bake a pizza round with some red onions and serve it hot with the salmon and everything else on the side.' Nobody complained." And a culinary signature was born.
Indeed, "Often for us, when you start out [on a project], you think you know what the story is. But really you don't know," says Nikki Silva, radio documentarian, half of the Kitchen Sisters. "It's the tangent. It's going off to the side," she says. "Or maybe it's the elephant in the room." The Kitchen Sisters' first major project, in the early '80s, got its start when she was looking for music for a show and found, among the old 78s, a woman's recorded letter to her soldier husband. Her fascination grew into a 14-minute portrait of home-front life during World War II. The key, she says, is looking and listening for the surprising thing. Serendipity -- there for the taking.
Such stories are tantalizing and, it sometimes seems, just out of reach. Steven Reich, a Santa Monica-based writer-producer, remembers when he had time for "not knowing." These days, though, "I realize sometimes that the only thing that is going to happen to me serendipitously is if something falls on my head while I'm sitting in front of the screen." Like Elizabeth Bailey, Reich leads an ultra-scheduled life, but it wasn't always this way. "While I was an actor, I was an on-call messenger," he says. "I traveled internationally. Was sent anywhere in the world at the drop of the hat. I was in it for the adventure. Now, he says, only half jesting, "I have to schedule serendipity. Really, you have to be open to it. Like Alice in Wonderland. Follow the white rabbit. But who has the time? "We structure our lives to make it all manageable," but, says Reich, "serendipity exists outside of the structure. It's the thing that pops into our path. It's the main road. Not the side road."
Reich's "main road," though, often seems inaccessible, or impossible to see. Faced with ever-growing lists of duties, it's easy to cling to the tried and true. Relocate for a job, and you can go online to find new friends who match up to the profile of the old. Get fed up with waiting for Mr./Ms. Right to turn the corner? Hit a dating site clutching a detailed wish list -- "6'7," "vegan," "no flakes." No time to channel surf? TiVo knows what you like. And life stays stuck in reruns. "It's striking to see how people gravitate toward not being surprised," says Jane
Hammerslough, author of "Dematerializing: Taming the Power of Possessions," who has taken a long, hard look at what we acquire and why. She thinks people's resistance to chance has much to do with risk aversion. Touring the country with her son's theater troupe last year, she felt all manner of reluctance to sample the unknown: "Here we are, traveling through the desert. And [everybody] would be interested in the Red Lobster. Not because it was less expensive, but because it was familiar," she says. "I'm from Connecticut. And I can't think about anything more horrible than a Red Lobster in the desert."
Lure of Certainty
Yet if eating at McDonald's in Paris seems depressing if not emotionally claustrophobic, leaving things to fate or chance or a "happy accident" can, for some, be too much to bear. Randomness can feel unsettlingly like an unfinished sentence or a hovering question mark. "I don't think there's less serendipity in people's lives. I think perhaps there's more," says writer Walter Mosley, whose body of work -- mysteries and speculative fictions -- frequently mines the territory of "what if?" "I'd even go as far as to say that there is too much serendipity. That people really are bedeviled by it."
Think back 30, 40 years, he suggests. People had a pretty good sense of their life path. "They knew where they were going to school. They knew who they would marry. How many kids they would have -- and most likely where they'd be buried." Little serendipity in that.
Today you have so many more choices, options, paths you can travel. And jobs disappear, illness slips in. It all makes you wonder if you'll make the right decision, and it seems impossible to make any with choice -- chance -- swirling. "So," says Mosley, "I think people want to take control when they can." The beeline replaces the meander.
It's that impulse that research librarians deal with every day, says Mike Germroth, who works with the Metropolitan Cooperative Library System's reference center, far off the beaten path in one of the L.A. Central Library's basements. He and his fellow "librarians of last resort" work in a world where browsing is still physical, and it's here that they respond to queries that have eluded the narrowly focused Google search. Days are full of hands in boxes, fingers pulling microfiche from waxy envelopes, eyes scanning stacks and spines, searching the periphery. "You ask lots of questions that both open things up and narrow things down." The librarians rely on skill, intuitiveness, creativity but lean mightily on serendipity, says Germroth. Often people think that if they can't find answers in their Internet search, or their imprecise parameters, the information can't be found.
"People are making assumptions about what's out there," he says. "Often, I have to come back to them and say: 'That's not what's there. This is what's there.' " People's searches, he notices, have been limited by expectations. "We have to be open to what we find. And what has happened is we think we know what we want rather than being open to what we find."
Desire for certainty exercises a powerful pull, says Paul Grobstein, a neurobiologist who is a professor at Bryn Mawr College. "It's not the way that we're born. The brain is comfortable with being uncertain. But our culture teaches us that being uncertain isn't a good thing. You learn when you're asked a question in fourth grade that you should have an answer," he says. "The thinking part of the brain, the experiencing part of the brain, makes sense of all the things that happen. It essentially comes up with a story that explains all the other parts. It is particularly sensitive to the feeling that there is something wrong with uncertainty."
But randomness is a key component of existence. "Living organisms are a product of an evolutionary process. It's a process of exploring the possible forms of things that could exist," he says. "We are explorers ourselves. We always have available to us a source of random change. And people are not entirely comfortable with unpredictability in other things or in themselves."
Thus malls aid the time-crunched and allow shoppers to predict not just what stores will be there but what will be on their shelves. And, in an oddly similar vein, a legion of online businesses have evolved promising to take the "risk" out of relationship serendipity.
Jonathan Abrams, the founder and chairman of the popular online friend-matching site Friendster, is not being ironic when he describes the service as a way to "proactively influence serendipity." A couple of years ago he began to notice that some of his friends were admitting that they were using online services to hook up. "The idea of chatting with random, anonymous strangers, that wasn't very appealing," says Abrams. "In fact it was a little creepy." But Abrams wondered if there was a way in which you could somehow mimic the social context you have in real life and expand it. "You can be manipulating serendipity to make more efficient use of your social time.... Instead of looking for women who are this height and are 'equally comfortable in jeans as in a cocktail dress,' you can stumble upon people by their interests. You can drive serendipity."
But really you can't, says Grobstein. That's not how it functions. Serendipity hinges not on control but on staying attuned to the unexpected. Self-selection limits not just opportunities, but potential. His website, Serendip, (http://serendip.brynmawr.edu) encourages visitors to think about their impulses and behavior through a series of interactive exhibits and provocative questions and discussions. They can transfer this to the way they think about their lives. "The idea is not to have questions answered but to ask better questions," he says. The larger experiment, he adds, is about helping people to see possibilities, "getting them accustomed to enjoying uncertainty.... Important things happen by chance."
For Art, For Life
Photographer Robbert Flick pays close attention to curious juxtapositions, peculiar coincidences, the things he may not see when he first plots his route. Displayed frame to frame to frame, Flick's images -- textures, colors, signage and interactions play within their borders -- eventually merge into a visual homage to serendipity. Again and again, he revisits a city street, a desert trail, a strand of beach, a lonely stretch of highway first to understand its rhythms, then to very methodically record what's there: children playing, people clustered on a street corner, a bus rolling by advertising spirits or cigarettes.
"Serendipity plays an enormous role in my work," says Flick. "I create the possibilities for accidents to happen," he says. "I'm very careful as to when I initiate the actual shoot. It's based on the study of the area. I know what the traffic is going to be like. I know that kids are going to appear at 2 o'clock. I know that the garbage is going to be picked up; I know when parked cars have been removed. And it is within those that these fortuitous things happen." In work such as "Sequential Views" or "L.A. Documents," Flick's images and process embody the very nature of serendipity. The two things that feel like polarities -- control and openness -- really aren't. We need both -- and time -- to see the rewards. "Serendipity," says Flick, "operates within contexts."
Those serendipitous events, surprises that emerge out of chance, make his stopped-down, focused world bigger, dynamic. A series of open questions. But Flick sees something else in his travels, along the edges. "I think there's been an increase in pills for depression, which is directly relatable," says Flick, to people wanting to control the uncontrollable. "I see my friends bring up their children ... this sort of protectiveness. I see it in my students in terms of risks or limited risks they'll take. Fear is operative. There has to be an openness." And that seems to be vanishing. "I'm not saying go put yourself in danger," he says. "But take chances."
The gift of chance, or serendipity, says Flick, "is like the I Ching, or the tarot. They don't define things. But they change your perspective." They alter the frame. Stepping back from Flick's installations, the juxtaposed images turn to a wash of color, to nuance. You begin to see a mood rather than particulars. The frames now hold another layer: a different angle, a deeper story. "Things become manifest," he says, "if you stay open to it."