Happy Accidents (aka, HAs)
© David Boyne
Late one sunny morning as I sat under a shade tree at my favorite outdoor café, alternating sips of my second uber-sized coffee with nibbles of my well-toasted onion bagel covered with a schmear of salmon cream cheese and fresh, perfectly peppered slices of tomato, perusing The New York Times and occasionally nudging my sandal-clad foot into my golden retriever who was snoozing on the sidewalk—
—some guy driving past in a cherry red Firebird felt compelled to brake to a hard stop in the middle of the intersection.
He beeped his horn.
I looked up.
He yelled at me, "Hey!"
I yelled back, "Hey!"
He smiled. Then he said, "Don't work too hard!"
And he drove off.
Grinning, sipping my coffee, I recalled when I was growing up, my dad's working-class friends often performed a brief, mysterious ceremony of leave-taking. They told one another: "Don't work too hard!"
I could not help but wonder where my impulsive new friend in the cherry red Firebird was going. Was he going somewhere he wanted to be? With people he enjoyed being with? Was he going to do work that stimulated and satisfied him? Or was he driving away to endure ten hours of numbing monotony in a gray cubicle or a loud factory surrounded by stressed, unhappy people?
After work, would he drive home to a wife whose eyes would brighten at the sight of him? Would a passel of kids leap up and run laughing and screaming to greet him, tumble around him, and try to climb him as if he were their personal jungle gym or oak tree? Or was he on his way to an empty apartment? To a wife who hadn't spoken his name in years—always robotically calling him "Honey"? To kids who acknowledged his presence by grunting, not bothering to pull their vacant gazes away from the tractor-beam of the glowing television?
My close encounter with this kind stranger was a small event. It was perfectly mundane. (*Bound to earth; worldly… Typical of or concerned with the ordinary.) Our meeting was no more than a simple coincidence. (**An accidental sequence of events that appear to have a causal relationship.)
It was also one of the infinite, stunning, complex, awe-inspiring, life-changing events that happen to me and everyone else on this planet, every single minute of every single day. In short, it was a happy accident.
I love happy accidents. I live for happy accidents. A single happy accident has the rejuvenating power to keep me going for days, for weeks—and more than once in my life, a single happy accident has kept me going for years.
Some mornings, only three things are guaranteed to get me out of bed. The urgent need to pee, the urgent need to drink coffee to stop the caffeine-deprivation headache that is keeping me from sleeping more, or the quiet, insistent promise of witnessing—or far better, being party to—a happy accident.
Happy accidents are busting out all over. Pay attention and you will begin to see them going off like silent fireworks all around you. Pay very close attention and you will even begin to hear them. They go snap, crackle, and pop.
I will now attempt a triple entendre! Wait. Wrong essay.
I will now attempt to excerpt a series of Happy Accidents from my own small life!
Here I go: As I was composing this essay, a friend interrupted me, eager to tell me of how he had just been pulled over by a police officer for failure to come to a full stop at a stop sign. Just as the cop was about to write my friend an expensive traffic ticket—an emergency call came over the radio in his police car. "This is your lucky day," the cop told my friend. He got in his patrol car and drove off.
I thanked my friend for sharing his story and asked him to go away, so I could get back to writing about happy accidents. He did, and as I began to write, I realized my friend had just told me about a happy accident. So I began typing furiously, working to add his story to this essay. But Newton, my golden retriever, chose that exact time to place his snout on my knee, whine, and when that failed to keep me from writing, he gently and repeatedly bunked his head into my leg. I gave up on writing. I took him for a walk.
On our walk, just two blocks from home, we came upon a grandfather pulling a red wagon down the sidewalk. His five-year old grandson was riding in the wagon. This caused a crackle of happy memories in me centered on the red wagon I had when I was this boy's age. Even as those memories were going off like soft fireworks in my consciousness, I raised my hand and said, "Hi."
The boy riding in the red wagon raised his hand and said, "Hi."
And I noticed he was wearing a Batman T-shirt. I was transfixed. When I was five, I had a Batman T-shirt exactly like this boy's. I stood there on the sidewalk, a wave of visceral memory passing through me, suddenly a five-year-old again, pulling a Batman T-shirt fresh from the laundry over my head, and experiencing the mysterious flow of benign yet awesome power that Batman T-shirt had imparted to me 41 years ago.
Newton, taking advantage of my distraction, began to pee on a rose bush, stimulating its growth, and causing the woman standing on the front steps of her house to scowl at me.
Two blocks later, while still exploring the catacombs of memory reopened by the sighting of the red wagon and Batman T-shirt, a woman driving past me suddenly pulled to the side of the road, leaned over to the open passenger window of her car and yelled, "Hey! Do you want to get rid of that rotten golden retriever you're stuck with? I'll take him off your hands!"
As other drivers patiently maneuvered around her car, not one of them honking their horn, the woman and I had a brief conversation. She told me of the two goldens she once had, how both had lived long and happy lives, and how much she missed them every day. We parted. I was happy and grinning, but also bruised from having shared her pain and everlasting sorrow of a loss experienced, and from my awareness of the same loss and sorrow waiting in my future. We were friends for a moment, although we will most likely die without speaking to or even seeing one another again.
Done. See? There are a lot (I'm too lazy to count 'em) of Real Life Happy Accidents in the above passage.
I could be wrong, but I believe that happy accident is the mechanism that unfolds the universe. If there truly was a Big Bang, I'm certain it was an accident. Light is a happy accident. Black holes are happy accidents. Baseball is a happy accident. Yeast, and its odd behavior when combined with sugar and hops, is a very happy accident.
Accident moves everything, from atoms, molecules and DNA, right on up to (down to?) the human level.
The thing that makes humans and other mammals different from dung beetles and stucco walls and blooming marigolds is that they are, on varying levels, aware of the coincidence, the accidents, going off all around them—and they can respond to and even build on these accidents.
Still don't believe me? Just stop rushing around and look. When humans or elephants or golden retrievers observe or participate in a happy accident, they might respond by salivating, laughing, crying, grieving, raging, remembering, enjoying, playing, brooding, spending money, and yes—even getting out of bed.
Further, happy accident is such a powerful motive force that humans go out of their way to construct all sorts of Rube Goldberg apparatus for the express purpose of creating happy accidents. What is a horse race, if not an orchestrated production of happy accidents? What is a joke, a punch line, if not a verbal or visual happy accident? What is every story ever told, if not a structured presentation of a particular and unique series of related happy accidents?
Granted, I'm strange. But I'm not the only one to see happy accident as central to life in all its many splendored forms. Both ancient mysticisms and modern scientific theories share the belief that every single action, reaction, and experience by every single animate and inanimate thing, influences every single action, reaction, and experience of every single other animate and inanimate thing.
I remember a day, back in the fourth grade, when one of my teachers talked about some ideas a dead guy named Isaac Newton had come up with and written down. I was shocked—shocked!—when told that an object remained at rest or in motion until acted upon by an outside force, and that every action created an equal and opposite reaction, because I immediately understood the irrefutable validity of these cosmic laws. From experience, I knew that the stone on the side of the road would remain there until I picked it up. From experience, I knew that when I picked it up and threw it, that stone would remain in flight until it ran out of energy and fell into the pond—or was stopped by (***)Brad Carlson's forehead—and that Brad would react to his head stopping the rock by furiously chasing me.
I am now what is commonly referred to as a "grown up." Yet the few times I've tried to gain a deeper understanding of the world and all the things in it than I grasped back in the fourth grade, the effort has made my brain hurt and I've had to crawl into bed and sleep it off.
My understanding of physics is rudimentary, but it serves me well. It allows me, when people far smarter than me assert there is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine, to remain quiet, calm, and smugly assured in my superior knowledge.
I know that we are all inside of and part of one Really Big Perpetual Motion Machine.
I even know that the mysterious force that designed and built and continues to power this infinitely huge perpetual motion machine is the same mysterious force that makes me wake up and get out of bed every morning.