Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

City Serendipity

tflurry's picture

On Saturday, September 14, the various members of the two classes of Play in the City met with Mark in the glass atrium outside of Hepburn; I was among the first people there, got my ticket, and watched as the room filled with people in waves. When most of the group had arrived, a few stragglers rushing in behind, Mark explained the details of the trip, and we split into groups; I was paired with a woman named Agatha, and we grouped with Phoenix and Marcia.

We rode the train into town; it was full but not crowded, Agatha enjoying a conversation with a friend as I read. When the train reached our station, we hurried off; the train stops were brief enough that a stumble could make you miss your stop. A short walk took us to the library, where Mark described the plan for the day; “Go play, and make sure to come back on time for your ticket.”


With that, we headed off, first to the sculpture garden in front of a museum. Phoenix crunched leaves, and for a moment or two I also had fun chased after the noisy-looking ones. In the garden the sculptures were beautiful, though the garden itself was small; I chanced upon a group of art-enthusiasts, who were conversing about a sculpture called The Shades, which depicted three tortured and tired looking men pointing and looking downward; the figures had originally been sculpted for the top of a door depicting Dante’s inferno, but which he had later also created enlarged figures of. I spent an enjoyable few moments discussing the methods and meaning of the piece, before looking around the garden further; I even found a copy of the door the Three Shades were designed for, with the three men perched at the top.


After the garden we wandered back to Logan’s Square, spotted an intriguing ad on a lamppost, and wandered into the Academy of Natural Sciences. There we spent an enjoyable time wandering around; we visited the dinosaur exhibit, amused by some of the poorly worded displays and many of the dinosaur bones; the Glow exhibit, whose advertising we had noticed outside, which was about various animals with bioluminescence or phosphorescence, and which culminated in several amusing pictures of the group in goofy glow in the dark costumes. After Glow we visited the butterfly room, where there were a number of beautiful butterflies and moths, among them a moon moth and two Atlas moths, bigger than my hand, that will live only five days after shedding the cocoon. We visited the “inside out” room, a children’s area where one could interact with the animals to a limited degree, and the live animal room, where one could watch a few animals behind glass. We went out for pizza, which was delicious, and walked back to the library, chatting and spotting a fabulous mural along the way.


When we got to the library, Agatha and I were first up; she took the yellow notebook on the left, I the red one on the right, and we listened to Ant’s recordings. It was incredibly interesting; as he described the senses I found myself paying more attention to my own, what I could hear versus what he described, and what he described that I could imagine hearing. I was mildly surprised, and not surprised at all, to find several times that when I tried to pace my eyes on the page to the words he read aloud, sometimes I would blink and realize that I had been absorbed in the text, read ahead, and find myself a solid paragraph ahead of his dictation. His musings were absorbing; his descriptions of hands, or the idea of “think about all the ink that went into printing this book. Think about how heavy that ink must be; something so slight, how much lighter would this book be if held no ink at all?”, or his description of the drawers full of words. It was fascinating when the instructions started requiring that I and my partner interact, that I read from her book, or she from mine, that I needed to figure out what she was showing me and why she was showing me it; I found myself puzzling out the logic, what the precise instructions must have been, for her to act as she did when she acted; it was a puzzle for me to figure out. Then there were the moments where the voice over did not match the words on the page; sometimes they were minor things, swapped adjective orders or the difference between Britishisms and Americanisms; little things that could have been brushed off as someone’s carelessness when copying down Ant’s script. This was the case during a passage about the narrator’s strangulation of his sister; the text said “strangled” but Ant said “murdered”, the text covered the dog with a blanket, Ant the girl’s body. Minor, if important, differences. The next piece of text, however, could not be passed off as writer error; in the book, the narrator discussed with a friend how he liked to write and edit. Ant neatly replaced a few words, changing the subject from his writing to his dead sister’s body. “Oh, yes; shutting up all the doors and the windows was a very good idea.” There were moments where the instructions were hard to understand, unclear; moments of confusion and frantic page turning. There were moments of silence that were not very silent at all in a working library, moments of noise that was not-quite-blinding as we read. Then there were the moments when Ant used the picture book, the words, and my partner all as his medium, combining them so that we had a story in our heads, a location for that story, that the other person had put there.


After Agatha and I had finished the performance, we returned our ipods and headphones and discussed the amazing experience we had just had, comparing notes. The man who had handed us our ipods to begin with, and took them back afterwards, told us that the yellow notebook had been set up deliberately to frustrate or fail; we discussed the various differences in our recordings and instructions, and wandered into the library’s music room while waiting for Marcia and Phoenix. They joined us moments later, and we went outside to sit on the grass across the street; others from our classes slowly trickled in to join us. At one point Phoenix tried to start a game of Duck Duck Goose, but it did not take; at another time she instituted a puppy pile, which did. I found myself reciting bits and pieces or odd quotes from the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, to the amusement of those around me. On the walk to the train and then the trip back home, Phoenix and I played first I Spy, then 20 Questions, to our amusement and the bafflement of most everyone around us. The day was wonderfully great fun.


My day annexed interestingly with the concepts in Sunstein’s “So Much for Serendipity”, in that my day was little besides serendipity. It was planned that I would be in the city and see the Quiet Volume. It was planned when I would go to Philly, and when I would come back. Everything else was chance, from when, precisely, I saw the show, to who I saw it with. What we did for fun was somewhat chance, in that there was no guaranteeing we’d all agree to visit the same place, and spotting the advertisements for Glow was a random happenstance. Most of the time, most days are not quite so luck filled; or, perhaps, they are similarly chance-filled and I merely never notice how much luck goes into my actions. Either way, it made it interesting to realize that I lived that day like I read a newspaper; picking it up with a specific intention, and detouring before and after you fulfill the purpose you picked it up for. It almost starts to make one wonder about where life and newspapers can find their similarities; perhaps they have none but their serendipity, but that is a pretty wonderful thing to have in common.