Ian Leslie has an interesting article in this month’s Intelligent Life titled “In Search of Serendipity.” Appropriately enough, I came across it accidentally when I was wandering around another aggregate site, The Browser.
I wrote a few weeks ago about how the Internet is changing the shape and scope of our minds, making us better at skimming information but less likely to engage in deep thought on any one subject. (“Life With No Computer” published here in early December, 2011.)
Leslie’s argument is that with the “democratization” of information, true serendipity (which he simply defines at one point as a happy coincidence) is becoming a rarer phenomenon. This got me thinking about the role of serendipity in my own life and career, and the fact that the early years were pre-internet, in fact pre-computer. (My first play was written on a typewriter!)
Artists are frequently asked about our careers, as if we somehow planned them to work out the way they did. I would suspect that with most of us, and maybe not just artists, maybe it’s true of doctors and lawyers and such, serendipity plays a huge role in our lives. So this is part of my story, and this blog is a rough sketch for a public lecture I will deliver at St. Mary’s University College later this year.
When I was a young man just starting out, I went to the University of Regina as a music major in piano performance. I finally realized with some pain and regret that I wasn’t good enough and so after a while slid over into English, but I had a few delusional years there when I though I might have a chance. During this time I became passionately interested in the work of Johannes Brahms, and in those days before the Internet, I did what we all used to do to find out more about him: I went to the library.
The fine arts library at the University of Regina had a good selection of books on Brahms. The trouble was, they were all written in German, some of them old enough to be in Gothic Script. So what to do? Serendipitous moment #1: I enrolled in a German class. I am of English heritage and I spoke not a word of it, but I survived German 100 and so enrolled in German 101 for the winter semester.
Half way through that class, my instructor, Frau Holle. a lovely woman of Austrian extraction, invited me up to her office for a late afternoon drop of sherry. (Imagine having a student of the opposite sex up to your office for a drink these days!)
“Herr Schtickland,” she said, “We have a very grave problem. I was hoping you could help.”
Each year the university was awarded a very generous scholarship by the Goethe Institut for one of its students to study in Germany for six months. No one from the upper years was free to take it, and they basically needed a warm body to fill the position so the scholarship wouldn’t be lost in future years.Was I free to go?
Serendipitous moment #2. I was, and I did.
This is what I looked like back then. This is what photographs looked like back then:
So off to Deutschland. Before the course started, I had a few weeks to kill so I went up to England to visit my Aunt Deirdre. While I was there, she suggested I go to Stratford and see some plays. Having grown up in Regina when I did, I hadn’t had the chance to see much theatre, because there wasn’t much theatre to be seen.
Serendipitous moment #3: I went to Stratford and saw a few plays by the old boy. Serendipitous moment #4: A brilliant production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream must have put the idea in my head that writing comedies would be a good thing to try.
And so back to Germany where I learned German well enough that people I met couldn’t tell I wasn’t from Germany. I loved my time there but I began to miss the English language, and so I bought a number of journals and began writing in them, which could well be Serendipitous moment #5. Certainly by the time I returned home, I realized I would never be a great concert pianist and began to think of myself as a writer and not as a musician.
And so I became a writer. I don’t believe I would have ever lived the life I have, if I had not ventured into a library some 35 years ago and become frustrated at not being able to read anything about my favourite composer. Part of the program in Germany was to study Gothic script and I got good enough that I could read a little. When I got back home to Regina, I went back to those books at the fine arts library and hacked through them, but I can’t pretend I gave them a good reading.
Still. what an interesting journey I went on, just to read a few books!
There is a postscript, which happened only a few years ago. There was a man who used to come to Caffe Beano, whose name I cannot remember and who passed away a year or so ago. I didn’t know him very well. He was a collector and seller of antiques, curios and rarities. One summer’s day as I was sitting outside the cafe writing in my journal, this man showed up with a rare find. It was a book published in the early 1500’s, I believe, that he had acquired at a Hutterite colony. It was a real beauty, with wooden covers and a richly decorated cover. Such antiquities are rare on the prairies.
He was showing it around (carefully) to some of the assembled. He opened it up and looked at the title page. “The trouble is,” he said, “I can’t read it. Can anyone here read Gothic script?”
Serendipitous moment #6.
I could, and I did.
Thanks for reading! Stay warm.
PS. I was in Caffe Beano this morning and asked around and found out that the man’s name was Udo. My friend Bob McDonald (aka Bob Loblaw because it sounds like blah blah blah) once bought an accordion from him. Who else are you going to get a good used accordion from? Apparently Udo had garages full of junk, but apparently it was all oxymoronic high quality junk. May he rest in peace. Bob remembers the Gothic Script incident, and told me that his estimation of me increased significantly that day.