Column writing: it's a matter of serendipity 2015.11.18


David was adding columns to the Observer website last week and noticed that one of my old columns had more than 1,100 hits. He sent me the link to it, “The Moldy Poetry of My Refrigerator,” totally derailing the next half hour of my life. 

I hopped from that column (about a poetry project of Maddie’s leading me to examine the contents of our refrigerator) to another with over 1,000 hits (about the failings of the human brain: “The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Lose”). That 2010 column was actually a repeat from 2001 and includes the retelling of my favorite library interaction of all time:

A middle-aged patron came into the library the other day and was joking with my co-worker Anne about a phone call she had made a couple of weeks before.

The patron had called to ask how late the library would be open but instead she said, “Could you tell me how old you are?”

As soon as the words tumbled out of her mouth she realized the mistake. She had no interest in Anne’s age; a major disconnect in the synapses of the brain had occurred and the question derailed, sliding right over to a different track.

It seemed like a perfectly logical mistake to me. Both questions started with “how,” involved numbers, and had to do with length of time. They seemed very related, probably controlled by the same section of the brain, I told the patron who was poking fun at herself for the blunder.

“You’re in good company around here,” I said. “Did Anne ever tell you about the time she answered the library phone saying, ‘This is Anne at the bank,’?” 

I had figured Anne must have done duty at a bank in her past, but no, she’d never even worked at a bank.

It’s always entertaining to look back at old columns. Not only does it make me laugh, it provides perspective and “answers to life’s persistent questions,” as Garrison Keillor would say. I had recently been wondering when our family first encountered Handel’s Homemade Ice Cream and Yogurt shop in Toledo and when my David-induced column browsing led me to this one from November of 2003, “Life Serves Up a Scoop of the Unexpected,” I found out.

The column started off with my usual lament about wanting to be a better person, more organized, more logical, more efficient, etc., but then descended into what I actually end up doing—in this case, heading for Toledo at 3:45 p.m. on a Sunday to do some major mall shopping with the goal of being home by 8 p.m.  

Rosie, Maddie and I are bound for Beaner’s, traveling west on Sylvania Avenue, with Rosie driving. I am reading a magazine when I look up, disoriented, and, thinking we are at the Beaner’s intersection, yell at Rosie to turn right. At the same time, Maddie is yelling, “Forget Beaner’s! Let’s go there! They have ice cream!”

I am mildly amused to read this in the column, “Right away, I find the most exciting item on the menu: a Handel Pop, a scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream on a popsicle stick, dipped in Belgian dark chocolate.”

In the 12 years since we discovered Handel’s, I have rarely strayed from ordering the mint chocolate chip Handel Pop. There are dozens and dozens of ice cream options at Handel’s, but I continue to find extreme satisfaction in the item I first tried.

“This is serendipity, you know,” I say, as the three of us sit on a bench in front of Handel’s, blissfully enjoying our treats.

“We never got to eat there,” Rosie reminds me. Serendipity is the name of an ice cream parlor restaurant in New York City where we almost spent a lot of money, but David refused to wait 40 minutes to get seated.

“No, I meant that we ended up here unexpectedly and it all worked out really well,” I say.

Later, I look up the definition of serendipity (the gift of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for) and have one of those “ah ha!” moments. A new life plan! I shouldn’t seek to be a better person. I should just let the forces of serendipity unfold. Don’t look for it and it will come to you.

It works for ice cream.

Works for column writing, too.