During the holidays, as we spend time with family, review our past, and contemplate the future, it’s painfully clear that our paths in life are a never-ending series of close calls, informed guesses, and breaks based on pure dumb luck.
Long ago, I read a book that by Norman Cousins about health that contained a passage I can not track down with a quick online search.*
The gist of his introduction was that there is a specific type of bacteria floating around in the mouths of every person in this country and yet only a handful of people actually contract a serious, possibly lethal disease related to those germs.
How is it that 99.99% of the population doesn’t get sick?
In the same way, think about how many times we have a close call and barely miss having a car accident. Several things all have to happen in the right order and at exactly the right time in order to have a collision.
Sometimes, a freak event happens, leaving us no semblance of control over our destiny.
Many years ago, on the Hollywood Freeway near Universal Studios, there was a horrific accident where a speeding southbound truck hit a construction barrier at the center divider, causing it to fly in the air like a stunt driver in a movie.
Unfortunately, the truck jumped the railing and attained enough height to land on top of another car stuck in rush hour traffic going northbound, crushing and killing the innocent driver.
How much of our lives do we really control?
If you believe the old saying, “Life is a journey, not a destination” I’ve got bad news for you, unless the dictionary definition of “journey” now reads “demolition derby.”
How many of you masters of your own destiny are simply bugs splattering across the windshield of an infinite number of trucks flying down the highways of our lives?
Christmas is another day to count our blessings.
Instead of thinking about all the opportunities I’ve missed or efforts where I’ve failed, maybe it’s time to think of all the times something horrible didn’t happen.
I thought of three events in our families’ history that fall into one of the three categories I mentioned above.
Please let me know in the comments if you’ve had similar experiences.
#1: Pure Dumb Luck
In 1933, the year my father-in-law (RIP) was born, a young couple built a house about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of the city of lights, in the open farm fields about 200 meters on the east side of Route National 20, the original north-south artery that runs all the way to the Spanish frontier.
The man was a conductor of the horse-drawn trolleys in Paris and his wife was my wife’s maternal grandmother.
86 years later, our family was having breakfast in that house with my brother-in-law and his family.
He had bought the house from his grandmother many years ago and then put in a tremendous amount of work to expand and modernize it.
I asked him to retell my sons and daughter-in-law the story of what happened there in 1944, as the Allies drove northward to liberate Paris.
He showed us the direction and location of where the artillery shell pierced the roof, passed within a couple of feet of the bassinet holding my mother-in-law’s baby brother, and exited through what used to be the window in the original back wall, but was now the center of a table filled with pancakes.
The spent ordnance landed in the back yard and never exploded.
Like the radishes my father-in-law’s family pulled out of their garden to survive the extreme poverty of the German occupation, my wife’s entire family should have been uprooted out of history, regardless of whether my mother-in-law had survived the explosion.
Without her parents, there would be no third sibling after the war, no house for the family to shelter my in-laws after they got married, and possibly no marriage at all.
The chances of my wife being born and leading a life that would lead to us meet and have our sons seem astronomically small.
#2: The Close Call
Fast forward to the late 1970s.
I was driving a car on the main boulevard/highway running through a small rural town in Central California. It’s one of those large roads where there are no stop signs or traffic lights limiting drivers because there are so few houses located on the cross streets.
My friend and I were rushing because we didn’t want to be late for the starting time of our matches in a satellite circuit tennis tournament.
I was going about 50 mph, but not exceeding the speed limit.
In the distance, I saw a car to my right stopped at a cross street stop sign.
As we approached the intersection — with the right of way — the car stuck his nose into our lane, as if the driver needed to see the oncoming traffic better along a stretch of road with nary a building or a tree.
I thought the driver could see us and stop they way rational, sober people do 99.99% of the time.
Instead the car continued to pull into the intersection just as I reached the intersection.
It almost seemed like the driver was trying to block my path — maybe there was a personal injury lawyer hidden behind a billboard nearby.
I started to veer left, but couldn’t risk going over the center divided and the oncoming traffic.
It was like a game of chicken where one driver has a death wish, because they kept moving to cut off my line of evasion on the left.
At the last second, I turned the wheel hard to the right and whizzed past the other car’s rear end.
Maybe his reflexes weren’t quick enough to put it in reverse — that’s the preferred kill strategy in demolition derby.
In that split-second of insanity, it felt like time stood still and I was totally focused in the moment.
As soon as we escaped the accident, I could feel my heart racing as I repeated over and over to my friend, “Did you see that? Did you see what that guy did?”
Even if I had survived the accident, my tennis career would have been over, or severely derailed, and completely changed the course of my travels and experience.
Either way, there is almost no way I would have met a French player in Los Angeles, agreed to coach him, follow him back to work with him in Paris, and ultimately meed my future wife.
Once again, no wife, no kids.
#3: The Informed Guess
You can call it intuition, or an informed guess, but nobody can predict the future, so it’s not like this event could have ever been anticipated except maybe by the engineers and crash dummies in Sweden.
In the early 1990s, after our two sons were old enough to go to school, my wife wanted a bigger car to transport them, our dog, and extra friends.
She told me she wanted a Volvo station wagon.
When I looked at the price of the used car she found in the used car ads, I was shocked: “You realize we could buy a brand new Toyota Camry station wagon for the same amount, right?”
“I want a Volvo station wagon.”
“But it’s a used car with a limited warranty.”
“I want a Volvo. They’re safer cars.”
We bought a Volvo.
I don’t remember the exact date, but within a year or two, she had a big accident.
She was waiting at the stop light at the entrance of the Hollywood Freeway going north (what is it with the Hollywood Freeway North?).
A car came flying down the onramp, never stopped and rear-ended the Volvo, crushing the back of the car.
Our sons were seated in third row of seats, facing backwards.
Not only did the rear window not crack and send shards of glass hurtling toward them, the back end folded down and not inward, keeping the people in the passenger zone completely unharmed.
The other driver was 100% in the wrong and the insurance company gave us the choice to total the car and get a settlement, but it wasn’t enough to buy an exact replacement, so we fixed it.
Either that car was cursed or my wife was blessed, because over the next two years, she got run off the road by bus (minor front end damage from going up on the curb), and was t-boned while making a left turn by a Mercedes that ran a red light.
Where the American sedan and bus failed, the Mercedes finally won, as the Volvo’s axel was damaged beyond repair.
My wife got through without a scratch, except for the jokes we used to make at her expense, even though she’s an excellent driver.
By the way, she hasn’t had an accident for 25 years, even though the Volvo and its twin sister were eventually replaced by a mini-van, an Avalon, and now a couple of leased SUVs.
Why does a person have such a strong feeling about buying a Volvo, and not become a life-long customer?
Once again, no kids, no daughter-in-law, and probably no pancakes.
When it comes to an arbitrary and absurd existence, just remember THE ALGORITHM is nothing compared to real life.
As we head off to the mountains for a week of snowboarding in what I hope will be good, soft snow (I’m getting too old to have a major wipeout on icy terrain), I’ll be mostly off the grid as WiFi is treated like a precious commodity in small Alpine villages.
Stay safe and enjoy a Happy New Year.
Here’s to better writing in 2020. (And a different president.)
Sorry about the lack of specificity, but I’m late going to have lunch on Christmas day with relatives as the family festivities in France started ironically with a special pancake breakfast for “les Amérlocs” on December 24th (we come here to have crepes), continue on through Christmas Eve until four o’clock in the morning and continue until Christmas night, interrupted only by a few hours of sleep and some bathroom breaks.