Serendipity

March 4th, 2019

Photo by Michael W. Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Guadalupe River, Texas

My running buddy and I were surrounded by what appeared to be an ocean of college kids, each dragging a tube and some with elaborate beer-cooler/multi-tube floatation systems that suggested these people were not the novice river runner I was. I felt a bit out of place, but at the same time, I was looking forward to trying this classic Texas activity—even if I was bit on the geriatric side.

As we stood on the bank, the bus driver/guide told us about the four sets of rapids we would encounter and how to safely negotiate our way around each. The first was Hueco Falls and we were told to stay to the far left. When he was finished, we waded into the icy water. It was absolutely shocking on entry, but after a few seconds it felt great on this blazing August day.

Feeling like a hippo trying to mount a tricycle, I fought my way onto the tube and began my trip downstream. Seconds later, I was underwater with a snoot full of river and the rather unpleasant sensation of bouncing off rocks. The driver failed to tell us Hueco Falls was barely 100 yards from our put-in point.

After what seemed like minutes underwater, being battered repeatedly, I surfaced at the end of the falls minus my tube. It seemed my day on the river had come to an abrupt end after less than two minutes and I was going to be paying for a lost tube. I struggled over to the left bank and hung on a tree root, just trying to catch my breath.

About five minutes later I heard a young man shout, “Did anyone lose a tube?” I guess my day wasn’t over after all. I retrieved the tube, thanked him profusely and then rested a few more minutes. Finally, hanging onto the tube for dear life, I waded down to a shallower spot where I would be able to once again “gracefully” climb aboard.

The rest of the trip turned out to be much less eventful, and at the end of the day, we pulled out in beautiful downtown Gruene. I returned the tube, changed clothes and headed to the Gristmill for dinner.

Sitting in one of the open areas overlooking the river, I enjoyed a chicken fried steak and a Corona. I planned to attend a show at Gruene Hall that night, so I just hung out there on the deck for a couple of hours watching the river run far below me and listening to restaurant’s music (which, by the way, was far more appropriate for someone my age than the people I had shared the river with that day). About an hour later, Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” came on and instantly, I was 17 again with a guitar hanging around my neck.
Like most kids in the ‘60s, I was part of a very bad garage band. We never amounted to anything, but we had a great time and dreamed of the day we would be more famous than the Beatles. One of the songs we played was this Cream hit and it led to one of my proudest moments. Well, it was at the time anyway. The song ends with a continuous striking of a single chord as the sound fades out. But the chord didn’t give closure to the song. While Cream made it work on the record by fading out the sound, in live performances, you can’t do that; songs need to end.

That open cadence drove me crazy for weeks and one practice day, as we finished the song, I just couldn’t take it anymore and I hit the chord that would give the song closure. Immediately, I, and everyone else in the band, recognized it as the first of the three-chord opening to the Who’s “I can See for Miles.” We segued immediately into that song and loved the way it sounded. Forever after, we performed those two songs together.

Back then, I didn’t understand that music was just math and architecture was frozen music. If I did, this “discovery” would have been no big deal. It would have been obvious if I just looked at it mathematically. But I didn’t know that then; I just knew that the final chord left us hanging and it drove me crazy. I had to close the loop. The way it happened was serendipity at its best—a totally pleasant accident.

Some of our most interesting discoveries have come from this kind of serendipitous event. Penicillin, Post-it notes, Viagra and even microwave ovens were all happy accidents. We are always shocked and delighted when they happen. We treat these events as if they were gifts— or even miracles—and in a sense, they are.

But I really have to wonder if these things we call serendipitous are really accidental or even all that rare for that matter. If you think about it, these “accidents” appear to be all around us, and they are happening far too often to be considered rare. A quick Google search will give you list after list of them—things like The Top 100 Serendipitous Scientific Discoveries. I wonder if they just might be the norm, rather than special events.

If they are indeed as common as I suspect, perhaps the thing that turns these everyday events into serendipity is our ability to see them when they are right there in front of us.
How many do we miss just because we aren’t open to them, or more important, are not expecting them? I wonder if it is possible to not only expect these happy accidents but, more importantly, to make a concerted effort to look for them. Maybe it is somewhat like hunting for morel mushrooms. They seem to be rare and very hard to find, but once you get “in the zone,” you realize they are everywhere. It may take two hours to get there, but once you do, you can gather a basket full of them in five minutes.

I experienced two “accidents” on this day, one not-so-pleasant one over Hueco falls (which I later learned was actually a Class III rapid; I guess I was lucky to just get a little bruised) and another in remembering my “discovery” of the connector between two songs. Yet I can’t help but wonder, how many other happy accidents didI miss on this, and every other day of my life.

How much more could we accomplish if we just made a concerted effort to be open to, and more importantly, to expect these events and be prepared to act on them when they occur?

Age-Adjusted Philosophy

January 2nd, 2019

Photo by Michael W. Gos

By Michael W. Gos

McKinney, Texas

We were in McKinney all weekend for a wedding and all the parties that go with it. In between the festivities, we had an afternoon to kill. As a married man, I knew what the agenda was going to be—shop till you drop. Fortunately, my sweetie and I have a system that works well for both of us. She drops me off at husband day care (the nearest bar) and she goes about her business while I read, talk with other oenophiles or just watch the world go by. McKinney is the perfect place to do this since the old courthouse square is surrounded by outdoor cafes and one very nice wine bar, the Landon Winery. It was a perfect autumn day, so I had no complaints.

A glass of French wine in front of me, I was watching two police officers saunter by on horseback when a waiter brought a woman to the next table. She immediately ordered a Cotes du Rhone. The waiter laughed and pointed out that this wine was seldom ordered there. And now, here were two strangers, sitting at adjacent tables requesting the same thing. He said it was “too weird” and walked off. Of course, that started the conversation.

She told me about her daughter, now in her early 30s, and the attitude she had that the future wasn’t worth devoting any of her time or energy to. She wanted to have fun, to do things, to live now while she was young and could enjoy it. As you might expect, Mom was not pleased with that mindset.

It is a universal human trait for each generation to complain about the younger one. I know I often find myself thinking things like that about my students. (I have solid evidence of the decline; student performance on college admissions tests has crashed and burned in the last 50 years.) But then, I also keep getting slammed by memories of my dad saying exactly the same things about my generation and how we were going to hell in a handbasket. (Okay, he might have been right.)

There is a lot of research that suggests the woman’s daughter may not be so far out of the norm, especially for her generation. I think there is a lot of energy being put into indoctrinating us into that way of thinking, especially by pop culture and self-help gurus. You know the claims. The past is dead; the future doesn’t exist. All we have is today, so you’d better make the most of it.

The problem is, I can’t really say this is such a bad way of looking at life. It seems to me, in the end, we will probably regret the things we didn’t do more than those we did, so why not use our time, and money, doing exciting, fun things? After all, we might not ever have a chance to do them again; we might not even be here tomorrow.

But then there is the other side. When I was young, I thought about life in much the same way as that girl. I was well into my thirties before I started seeing this issue differently. The fact is, regardless of the catchy phrases and persuasive arguments to the contrary, the here-and-now is only one third of the whole picture. If we buy into the usual definitions of time and space, life is a long chain of events. To understand life, we have to see it all. The problem is most people never see the entire chain, only the closest link.

Photo by Michael W. Gos

First, there is the obvious problem, the one I think the Cotes du Rhone mom was most worried about—the future and the obvious issue of finances. When do you start planning for buying that house, having that kid, or for retirement? I think the lack of attention to this matter is what most people see as the problem with living only in the now. In fact, most see it as being irresponsible.

But there is a more important issue regarding the future than finances. Those who don’t look to—and plan for—the future, stagnate. You can’t move forward into a future you didn’t plan and expect good results. Life will always be a series of “accidents” and you will never feel like you have any control over what happens to you.

And then there is the other direction. Fewer people consider the downside of ignoring the past, but it may have even greater consequences for our lives than not thinking about, and planning for, the future. Looking back, I can see how dumb I was about life. Like many young people, I made a lot of stupid decisions. But I learned from them; they made me what I am today. However, this learning always happened long after the fact. Only by looking back later could I understand the events and why they were important. Mistakes are a necessary part of life, but if I had not spent some time looking at the past, they would have remained just mistakes. I would never have received their gifts.

There is nothing wrong with making the most of today. But if we are going to excel in life, our world view should include learning from the past and planning for the future. For a happy future, we must look beyond the closest link and see the entire chain. It only makes sense.

And yet, I can’t deny that there is that other issue; we never know what day will be the last, so obsessing over the past or working diligently for a future could turn out to be a total waste of life. If you are thinking I can’t make up my mind which approach is better, you are exactly right.

Winston Churchill once said, “Any man under 30 who is not a liberal has no heart, and any man over 30 who is not a conservative has no brains.” Perhaps we can apply Churchill’s logic to the question of how to live life; I wonder if the answer to this dilemma might be age-dependent.

When young, it is certainly prudent to study past mistakes and plan for the future. But there comes a time when our futures are fairly secure, and we have life pretty well figured out (at least we hope we do). Usually by then we become aware of our mortality and recognize that we are indeed running out of sunsets. It seems to me that maybe this is the time when living for the now is appropriate.

A friend of mine once referred to his retirement as “selfish bastard time.” Maybe he had this thing figured out and he was trying to show me the answer.

Juxtapositions

May 1st, 2017

By Michael W. Gos

Shiner, Texas

From the time we are very young, we experience juxtaposed sights, scents and touches that always remain in our minds and hearts as pairs.  I will forever couple that magnificent smell of cigars with sunny days with my dad at Wrigley Field.  Hearing a British accent always takes me back to that summer at Oxford and church always brings the thought of beer.  (What??  Yeah, you read that right.)

On our spring break trip a few weeks ago, after a couple of days at King Ranch, we headed north toward Flatonia.  We had spent this particular morning touring three more of the painted churches of Texas—one in Praha, one in Moulton and the last in Shiner.  After lunch at a fried chicken joint there in town we decided that, since we were in Shiner, why not hit the brewery?

Since it was an absolutely perfect day, while we waited for the next tour to begin, we sat outside at a picnic table and drank our four free beers in the sunshine.  I was enjoying a lemony brew that was new to me when it hit me—it was almost like being a kid again, this juxtaposition of church and beer.

Growing up Catholic, beer was a part of most church-related activities.  Sure, in the mass itself the priest used wine, but we were a poor working-class community so beer was the libation of choice.  Every Friday night my family would have fried fish at home and it was always clear to us as kids that this was for religious reasons.  As early as I can remember, my brother and I got a tiny glass of watered-down beer with our fish.  Church socials, especially potlucks, always featured beer.  And my favorite of all, the annual father and son trips to the Purdue-Notre Dame football game featured a bus full of coolers of beer.  While beer was always around, I was in my twenties before ever I saw someone drunk.  Beer was a part of life; overdoing it was not.  Still today, the smell of beer alone makes me think of church.

I sometimes wonder why these juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated, sometimes incompatible images are so important to us.  They stay with us long after the memory of events themselves seems to be gone.  Today, I don’t remember a single individual Cubs game, but I remember the cigar smell meant Wrigley Field.

Recently, at a restaurant with friends, someone brought up the song “Elusive Butterfly” by Bob Lind.  Inevitably, the question was asked, “When was that a hit?”  While the quick-on-the-draw cell phone expert in the group began to look it up on the Internet, I searched my memory for juxtapositions.  I had no other choice since I only have a flip phone.  (I don’t want a phone that is smarter than I am.)  Still I had a powerful tool at my disposal.  What could I connect the song to?  I remember having a discussion with my then-girlfriend about the fact that the song was unique because it had no rhyme.  We were outside in the snow.  Simple.  If there was snow, I knew it was winter and because of who I was with, it had to be my sophomore year in high school.  I announced the answer: winter of 65-66.  About two minutes later, our smart phone master informed us the song was released in December of 1965 and hit number five on the charts in January of ’66.  The entire group talked among themselves marveling at my fantastic memory, allowing me a chance to sneak a peek at the address on my driver’s license to refresh my memory on how to get home.
There is no question that these juxtapositions we have stored are powerful tools once we learn to use them.  But not all of us know how to do that.  Many of us, because of training or the job we hold, can look at something analytically.  We are very adept at breaking the whole down into its component parts.  We can even analyze how those parts interact.  But how many of us can go in the other direction, that is, to look at the object as a part of a larger system and then study how it interacts with other things in the world to form a whole?  Even those of us who can do this as part of our jobs seldom transfer this skill to everyday life.

And yet, that is a critical skill. We need to be able to see these subtle connections.  As humans, we tend to view the world in dichotomies.  We need to do that to really understand life around us.  Think about all the pairs we take for granted: work/play; healthy/sick; hot/cold.  Many of these are opposites and we see a scale running between the poles.  We measure things by their position on that scale.  Other dichotomies are less clear.  We see the pair of love as hate, yet they are not opposites, but rather two sides of the same coin, a strong emotional attachment. (The opposite of love is indifference.)  And sometimes, part of the dichotomy is invisible.  According to Aristotle, this is the case with happiness/unhappiness.  He says happiness is like air.  We are only aware of it in its absence.  Perhaps it is these difficult juxtapositions that make us less willing to rely on them in our daily lives.  If it is too much like work, I’d rather not do it.

Some juxtapositions just jump out at you when you least expect them, like beer and church did for me in Shiner.  Others, like Elusive Butterfly, are more subtle; you have to work for them.  But it seems to me, they are such powerful tools that it is worth the search.  I am always amazed at the power they bring.

For the next few weeks, every time I thought of something in my past, I looked for its pair.  That has opened up a surprisingly rich collection of memories and new ideas that I never would have been able to enjoy otherwise.   Some have lain dormant for years—like the way beetles remind me of the day my best friend and I went to school wearing long underwear and gym shorts.  But that’s a story for another day.