#62 – Sometimes Things Work and Sometimes They Don’t: My Summer Vacation vs. “A Fable” by William Faulkner (1955)

Def: Serendipity: 1. an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident; 2. the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. See also: you can’t make this sh*t up.

Things can happen by accident or chance. Incredible things. Things that cannot be manufactured or created by will. I know this to be true, but it’s astounding that, at my age, I’m still surprised that these things happen and that they often work out OK. Or at least, much better than they should have. Sometimes by “work out” I mean “I didn’t die” (see, e.g., when I, at age 17, was left in Tijuana with $5 and no ride and decided my best option was to hitchhike to San Diego). But most of the time it is less about avoiding a tragic outcome, and more about stumbling across amazing moments that I would (and should) have never expected to happen. Serendipity. And that’s exactly what happened when we went to Europe this summer.

To set the stage, it is important to know that we give our older kids a lot of say in where we vacation. Possibly too much. Like when the kids chose…wait for it….Pennsylvania! for spring break, we were skeptical, but it worked out. Between Hershey Park, Gettysburg, and the cheesesteaks, we had a great time. One year wiser, this year we limited the options for our summer destination to Europe, and solicited suggestions.

Where did we end up? Start with my daughter Lily, who just turned 12 and whose favorite book in the whole wide world is The Fault in Our Stars, which, if you haven’t read it, really is the best (non-Pulitzer prize winning) book in the whole wide world. And in TFIOS (tweens love acronyms), a pivotal story arch has the two cancer-stricken teenage protagonists visit Amsterdam. Ergo, we have Lily’s choice and stop #1, and promptly purchased four tickets to Amsterdam. My son Sam is 13 and a legitimate World War II history buff. And he knows his stuff. We once met a WWII vet at a museum and Sam correctly answered every obscure question the guy asked about the war. So, we had our next stop, and promptly purchased four train tickets to Berlin. (As an aside, Sam’s other top travel ideas at the moment are (a) Iceland to see the Aurora Borealis and (b) Burning Man. Places Sam Takes Me could be my new blog.)

On the plane to Amsterdam I opened up Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, and read the first sentence: “While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.” While not itself serendipitous, it was certainly eerily coincidental, and foreshadowed the serendipity to follow. Because unless you live under a rock or really really really hate sports, then you have probably already figured out that our European adventure was about to collide with the World Cup.

I am by no means a die-hard soccer fan but I love the World Cup because the World Cup does one thing better than any other event that human beings organize –it focuses the attention of the world on one place at one moment. From the moment Brazil beat Croatia in the first match, a substantial portion of the living population of the Earth had its feelings altered simultaneously by the actions of 22 men chasing a ball around a field in Brazil. Only the Olympics brings people together like this, and hey, all due respect to the Olympics, but is it ever not the same thing.

And this World Cup pretty much had everything on the field and off. It started with an insane group stage full of upsets and ended with the coronation of Germany and the potential start of a dynasty. And along the way it had Robin van Persie’s header against Spain; Guillermo Ochoa blanking Brazil; Costa Rica leaving a trail of established European powers in its wake; James Rodrigues and the Giant Bug; the Netherlands’ equalizer against Mexico in the 88th minute; Tim Howard’s 16 saves and the series of nervous breakdowns that was US-Belgium; and Germany scoring four goals in six minutes against the most celebrated nation in soccer history, a team that hadn’t lost a competitive match on home soil since 1975. But I digress.

What will be really memorable about this year’s Cup, at least for me, is that it unfolded serendipitously to overlap perfectly with our kids very non-soccer focused vacation plans.

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We landed in Amsterdam with enough time to get our bearings, check in to our hotel, purchase bright orange Robben, van Persie and Sneijder jerseys and find ourselves a spot in a bar near the Vondelpark to watch the Netherlands-Argentina match. The teams played to a stalemate and, truth be told, it wasn’t even an exciting stalemate. Argentina won in a shoot out, so we bid adieu to the Dutch who left us with so many lasting memories from this World Cup like…, um, well… Arjen Robben falling down.

But we weren’t that upset. Our love of the Dutch was fleeting because, serendipitously, Germany let loose a historic and unanticipated 7-1 drubbing on Brazil in the other semi-final and, by chance, our itinerary had us landing in Berlin the day of the finals. So once again, we had just enough time to get our bearings, buy some appropriately allegiant clothing (this time the last of the German hats and flags in the stores), and make our way to the Brandenburg gate to watch the World Cup finals on the big screens with 100,000 of our closest German friends who were armed with a seemingly unending supply of beer and sausage.

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We all know how the story ends. Germany were crowned world champions for the fourth time thanks to a stunning extra-time winner from super sub Mario Gotze in the 113th minute. We hugged our drunk German brethren. We loudly sang German soccer songs without knowing a single word other than “Deutchland, Deutchland.” We drank giant beers. And we ruined our kids. Because now they want to know where we will celebrate the World Cup championship four years from now and I have to tell them that you can’t re-create what happened because it happened entirely by chance. It was serendipity. It was magical. And sometimes things just work out because working out feels awesome.

My 200,000 closest German friends as seen from the Ferris Wheel.

My 100,000 closest German friends as seen from the Ferris Wheel.

But sometimes it doesn’t, which brings me to William Faulkner’s A Fable. The plot itself is actually pretty straightforward: a French battalion in WWI lay down their arms and refuse to fight at the behest of a Christ-like corporal. Chaos ensues as the military powers-that-be realize that if all the soldiers realize peace is as simple as everybody agreeing to stop fighting, then what’s the point of being a power-that-be. The story chronicles the elaborate efforts of the French, British and American powers-that-be to investigate and cover up this absurdity, and to punish those responsible for daring to stop a war.

Faulkner, without a doubt, is a literary great and one of only two authors with two novels on the Pulitzer list. And evidence of his genius is abundant but the problem is it’s hidden amidst pages and pages of rambling paragraphs and speeches and descriptions that are circular and repetitive and overly-flowery to the point of being masturbatory. Moreover, as with James Cozzens’ Guard of Honor, most of the characters are seldom referred to by name, and there is a liberal use of pronouns with ambiguous antecedents, so it’s easy to lose track of who’s who and what they’re doing at any given moment. I love a dense and rambling novel as much as the next guy, but when you combine that with repetitive and opaque writing, the results are a far more challenging read than seems necessary.

It was painstaking to finish this one, but I was hoping that there would be that Faulkner pay-off where you just love the end of the book, where he brings everything together in a way that blows your mind. I was hoping it would all work out in the end. But sometimes it doesn’t. Faulkner was a brilliant writer, but by the time he wrote this, his fifteenth novel, he was less in need of talent than of an editor. This was not magical, and certainly not something that happened by chance. He manufactured this book, belaboring the language, writing intentionally and deliberately, and it did not work out OK. Except maybe for the whole winning the Pulitzer thing. Which, although good for him, didn’t help him rank any higher than last on my list with this novel.

P.S. If I was in need of any more serendipity on this trip I found it at the very last stop. After Berlin we headed to Prague and by chance, on our way home, in the Prague airport, there was a piano with a sign inviting people to play. And by chance, we had a few minutes to spare, and Lily embraced the opportunity, playing “Colors of the Wind” from the movie Pocahontas.

We weren’t home more than a week when, by chance, the following video appeared in my Facebook feed.

It turns out that the pianos have been placed around the city streets, public spaces and train stations as part of an unusual art project aimed at getting people together away from their typical routine. By chance the one piano that we came across was the exact same piano in the viral video. Serendipity? The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way? Absolutely. It was one last magical moment that we never could have imagined. At least until the next one.

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