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The road to serendipity

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image My Dad devoted his life to teaching, pictured here lecturing in a community college class. Although he passed away 34 years ago, he’s still teaching me. Tom Wallace Photo courtesy of Pam Traphagen

Newspapers around the nation are struggling, but I think it has as much to do with how the newspapers are run than it does the medium itself. I think that print will be around for a long time — and, yes, the future is bright as technology will someday provide the means for true electronic sheets of paper (it will happen, probably sooner than later). Your local newspaper will be delivered with the press of a button to a piece of paper you can hold in your hand. And it will be updated whenever necessary, just turn the page over and a new page will appear. That is not science fiction; it is science.

Looking over the page of a newspaper can be a serendipitous experience that has not yet been fully achieved on the web. A computer screen full of headline links just isn’t the same as seeing a printed page, with the very real possibility of stumbling upon an article or three you didn’t know you would be interested in. The bottom line is that until reusable electronic paper is available, it’s hard to beat holding an old-fashioned newspaper.

That said, the web does have its own form of serendipity. Last night Michelle and I were watching an independently produced television show. The budget was low, the acting was a little hit or miss, but the show was the result of someone’s dream and hard work and, all things considered, it was pretty good. At one point, Michelle thought she recognized the person who played Nellie on the 1970’s television show Little House on the Prairie. We had no idea what Nellie’s real name was so we just typed, “Nellie Little House on the Prairie” into Google and all we ever could ever want to know about Alison Arngrim appeared in links before our eyes.

Here’s where the serendipity part comes in.

Among the links for Ms. Arngrim was one to her Twitter feed, which included a tweet to Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura on Little House on the Prairie. That led me to Ms. Gilbert’s Twitter feed, which was an interesting documentary of her life in 140 character scenes. Her most recent tweets included a good bit of anger, thanks to an article in a supermarket tabloid bastion of soulless sensationalism, and also included a few words that cute little Laura certainly never uttered on the prairie.

Today Ms. Gilbert is a strikingly beautiful woman of 48 who lives her life the same as all of us. She has a home, a cat, a dog and a son. She experiences joy and heartbreak. She sometimes has trouble sleeping at night. I’ve never seen Dancing With The Stars but I’ve heard she is on it. I’m assuming the world still considers her a celebrity, with all the perks and pitfalls involved with such a status. But in most ways, she has the same problems I have. She is just trying to get by in life.

My Dad would have been 78-years-old last week. He passed away at the age of 43 when I was 15. Let me tell you, 15 is a really bad age to lose your father. I wasn’t done yet, I still had a lot to learn from him. The truth be told, however, I am still learning from him. I look back at the things he did that I couldn’t possibly appreciate at the time and I try to emulate them now. “Try” being the key word because, in all honesty, I’m rarely successful. Right now, I can’t find the serendipity in his passing birthday, but most days I can find it in the example he set for me.

My Dad had dreams that he will never fulfill. His job was important, a lot of people depended upon him, but at the age of 43, his priorities were changing. As the youngest child, I benefitted from that. I didn’t appreciate back then that he had precious little time for himself, but I’ve grown to immeasurably appreciate the extra time he gave me in his last years. I am also increasingly appreciating the meaning of the leave of absence paperwork in his files, dated the month he passed away but will forever be unsigned. Somehow, I think there is a tragic form of serendipity there.

In Horace Walpole’s Three Princes of Serendip, the princes were continuously making discoveries of things they were not in search of. The princes’ father was a good man who worked to make sure they were not only educated, but were also endowed with the virtues they would most need in their lives.

I think my Dad did just that, too, and is still providing it to my sisters, my brother, and me. Serendipity is in where you look for it — feeling empathy for a beautiful but sometimes sad 48-year-old celebrity or discovering an article on a newspaper page that just happened to catch your eye. I find there is serendipity in every single day that I think about what my Dad would do, what he might suggest I do. And sometimes I can even find it in the things he didn’t do. The biggest virtues of all that he tried to endow us with were happiness and the confidence to follow our hearts. That’s a good thing to remember — for me, and possibly for you and Ms. Gilbert, too. It seems the best discoveries are those we didn’t know we were searching for, but always our hearts knew the way. The problem is whether we will always choose to follow.

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