Turning Points

A Review of Serendipity by Thomas J. Thorson

When people settle in a particular community—whether by choice or by circumstance—the site of their home informs their future experiences and outlook. Subsequent situations like the growth of friendships or enmities, volunteerism or work, community service or religious affiliation often hinge on that initial decision.

I, like so many others, have wondered about little events and minor choices influencing the course of my life. I am not talking about marriage, children, or career choices, which are significant turning points, but something seemingly inconsequential, like a newspaper article—a notice, really.

What if, in 1979, a couple of short paragraphs buried on page six of the daily paper had not caught my eye? They described a famous architect’s plan to re-purpose an old loft building for mixed use; “live/work,” he called it. The architect’s project was part of a developer’s ambition to remake a secondary skid row on the downtown’s south flank into a dynamic and diverse community.

Up to the moment I saw those paragraphs, later to prove prophetic, I had assumed I always would work on my art and performance projects from the basement of our small suburban house. The idea of combining my studio with our family’s living space in a creative, somewhat counter-culture setting, yet close to traditional cultural amenities persuaded me to propose a move. I dreamed of a large airy studio at one end of the loft, and family dinners a half block away at the other end. The space was cheap and the square footage immense. After some thought, my husband agreed. The children weren’t so sure. The move did change our lives dramatically. We scrambled to find good schooling for the children because no neighborhood schools existed. There were no grocery stores. Nevertheless, the move generated a series of enriching apprenticeships and careers in the arts for me, and my husband finally commuted to work on his own two feet instead of a train. All of that happened because of a casual, tiny article in the paper.

Thomas J. Thorson’s Serendipity, released in April 2018 by Windy City Publishers, Chicago, is subtitled, “Seeming Random Events, Insignificant Decisions, and Accidental Discoveries That Altered History.” Life is full of unintended consequences resulting from small acts. Just as every fish swimming in an ocean affects its environment, so might every person’s choices affect the course of human history.

Thorson’s overview is close to comprehensive: he includes pivotal events in the lives of statesmen, inventors, writers, actors, scientists, and journalists, among others. His conversational style invites the reader into a realm of “What-If” and to ponder the question, would the world be different today if some accident or chance occurrence had not created circumstances giving rise, for example, to one person’s surviving a catastrophe, an actor’s long career in Hollywood, or another person’s reign of terror and destruction? Although I was familiar with speculation about the connection between Adolph Hitler’s failed artistic ambitions and his evolution into demagoguery and mass murder, most other stories in this non-fiction work were new to me and quite intriguing.

One of my favorite chapters concerns the serendipitous invention of certain toys, like Silly Putty and the Slinky coil. In that context, Thorson also reveals the story of Adams brand chewing gum. Chicle-based gum resulted from a failed attempt to vulcanize a tree resin into a form of synthetic rubber. That happened nearly 150 years ago. Who knew?

On a more personal note, Thorson reflects on the fifteen moves his family made before he reached the age of 18 and muses how different his life might have been with fewer moves. Who knows? My own life changed immensely with just one.


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