Bad Luck, Good Luck

This is the story of how my wife Anna and I walked away unharmed from a car crash that easily could have killed us.

Here’s how I experienced it:

On the first of this month, February 2019, we headed south from Chicago to visit family near St. Louis. About four hours into the trip, we were somewhere in the vicinity of Springfield. I had the car on cruise control going about 70 mph (the speed limit) in the left lane on I-55, having recently passed a semi, when a loud chunk-chunk-chunk sounded from the rear right of the vehicle.

I had enough time to say, “What the heck?” and wonder if the bumper cover had popped off and was dragging on the road, when the car started swerving. I tried to correct, without effect. We spun out across the right lane. Anna started screaming. I had a vision of the semi we’d passed slamming into us. The car sped rearwards down the highway, then onto gravel and grass. I hit the brakes. We plowed through brush, branches whipping by on either side. The driver-side window burst in, and the car finally came to a halt.  Anna stopped screaming.

Shaking, we looked around and boggled at what had just happened, at the fact that we were still alive and unharmed. No airbags had gone off, but the rear windshield had completely shattered. I dialed 911. All I could see through the front windshield and the surrounding brush was a sign for food and amenities at a nearby northbound exit on the far side of the highway, so that’s what I told the emergency operator.

We decided to wait in the car for the police to arrive. Completely surrounded by brush and branches, we couldn’t open our doors. I considered climbing out my busted driver-side window, but then we’d just be waiting out in the cold. I attempted to brush some of the glass off of my clothes. When emergency services arrived, firefighters had to use chainsaws to cut the branches away from around the car so we could get out. The tow truck dragged the car out with a chain. That’s when we finally saw the rear right tire, completely flat with tread trailing away from it in tatters.

Here’s what I’ve been able to piece together about what actually happened, and it involves a string of bad luck followed by a string of ridiculously good luck:

Two days before we left, Chicago had record-breaking sub-zero temperatures. The day before we left wasn’t much better. During that time, our car, and its right rear tire, were sitting out in the extreme cold. Just a week earlier, we’d taken the car for an oil change, and they’d encouraged us to change out our tires as well. The tires weren’t particularly old, and we know these oil change places always try to upsell, so we told them thanks-but-no-thanks and said we’d keep an eye on the tires. If we’d actually opted to replace them, perhaps things wouldn’t have gone down like they did.

Driving south in warmer weather, into warmer climes, for four hours, some flaw in the rear right tire must have been exposed to more change in pressure than it could handle. It came apart, while we were cruising at 70 down the interstate.

That was the bad luck. This is where the unbelievably good luck begins.

First, I had recently passed a semi, but hadn’t yet moved back into the right lane. If we’d been next to the semi, or just barely ahead of it, the resulting collision when the car went out of control likely would have killed us. If we’d been in the right lane, we would have spun out into the ditch and flipped over, going off the road sideways and perpendicular to the highway instead of backwards and nearly parallel, which also could have been deadly.

Second, I didn’t hit the brakes right away, so we didn’t slow or stop in the right lane with a semi coming at us head-on. I don’t know if this was because I somehow retained the wherewithal not to brake until we were off the road, or if my feet just took that long to catch up with my brain. But I do know that if we’d stopped on the highway and not off of it we’d probably be dead.

There are doubtless other ways things could have gone wrong. If we’d spun off left into the median railing, or if we’d gone off the road facing forward instead of backwards, or if there’d been something much more solid to run into than the brush that cushioned us.

I could also go on about all the other challenges that piled up. How the police took us to the Springfield airport to rent a car, but we discovered that airport rental locations can’t process insurance claims. How the taxi to the nearest rental place never arrived, and they had to stay open late for us to get us the last car in the lot, a massive tank of a vehicle nothing like what we usually drove. How the smaller rental car we eventually swapped it out for had no lumbar support and did such a number on my back I missed a day of work lying in bed with a hot pack. How much of a pain it was to find and purchase a replacement for our totaled car on such short notice. But none of those things were going to kill us.

As a Humanist, I don’t believe in any deities, or miracles. I don’t believe there’s anyone watching out for me (and part of me thinks that, if there were, why were they willing and able to stop the car from flipping or being crushed by a semi, but not willing or not able to stop the tire from disintegrating while we were speeding down the interstate?).

I have, on occasion, wondered if some extremely ineffectual or incompetent deity is out to kill me. Aside from the car crash, most notably was the time I was standing in line at the grocery store and heard a loud crash, followed by something hitting me in the neck. In reaction, I put my hand up and caught a small object, clear and cold in my palm, as it fell down to my chest. At first I thought it was ice, until I realized that a case of soda water had fallen off a shopping cart in the next line over, and a knife-shaped shard of glass had shot straight at my throat. Didn’t even break the skin, but still a spooky experience.

In the aftermath of the car accident, starting about as soon as we came to a halt in the brush, I’ve felt envy towards my theist friends, who have something identifiable to be grateful towards. It’s not very satisfying to feel grateful towards the random chaos of the universe. Nevertheless, it’s what I have, and I continue to be grateful all the same.

What Cannot Be Said in Words: Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

Yesterday the world learned of the passing of literary giant Ursula K. Le Guin. And I don’t think I’ve ever felt so deeply upset by the death of someone I never actually met. But then, few individuals have had such a profound impact on me with their words alone.

When I was about thirteen, I read A Wizard of Earthsea. It was quite different from any piece of fiction I’d encountered before: epic but focused, mythic yet personal, with a fascinating take on magic and the power of words; and it flipped the script on the common fantasy trope of pale civilized folk and brown barbarians, revealing and rejecting the white supremacist undercurrent I hadn’t even realized was present in the genre. Eager for more, I nabbed the sequel, The Tombs of Atuan, and settled into my faux-denim beanbag chair to continue my journey through Earthsea.

Wizard was wonderful and eye-opening, but The Tombs of Atuan was a revelation. It changed how I thought about fiction, challenging and overturning my fundamental assumptions about what made good fantasy.

Sometime in the preceding year or so, I had declared anathema all books that had “slow parts.” Tombs was all “slow parts.” There was little action, and almost no magic, at least not in the flashy, overt sense I was accustomed to. The magic of Tombs was personal and interpersonal; it was empathy, and reclaiming lost identity, and freedom, and choice. It was beautiful, and restrained, and by my own standards of the time I should have been bored and done with it by page 2. But I loved every word.

Afterwards, I was unable to express why this book had drawn me in and consumed me so thoroughly. It showed me that compelling storytelling didn’t have to come barreling in with a loud bang. Sometimes the most powerful stories come softly, creeping up on you unawares.

I’m still not sure I could explain how Le Guin did what she did, how she got an adolescent boy raised on explosion-filled Saturday morning cartoons to invest himself in a young girl’s quiet coming of age. Perhaps it’s time for me to revisit The Tombs of Atuan, time to return to the world of Earthsea, and explore it once again with fresh eyes.

I wish I had some bit of wisdom or a pithy quote to end with, but there are entire books filled with Le Guin’s words and wisdom (go forth and read them, for the first time, or the fiftieth time) and I can offer none of my own. Because right now, I’m back to being that kid in the beanbag chair, failing to find the words for what I’m feeling.

Goodbye, Ms. Le Guin. We will miss you.

No More Games: My Writing in 2017, and What’s Next

So. It’s coming up on 11 months since I last posted, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to look back on my writing endeavors in 2017, and a little of what I’m planning for the future. The past year has been rough on a lot of people, myself included, but I won’t go into that. Suffice to say that the political climate hasn’t helped my creative focus.

2017 started out pretty solid for writing. I spent January revising a long short story/short novelette. I participated in my online writing group’s February intensive, and in April I got a good 14,000 words or so deep into a novella before a sinus infection knocked me down for the count. (I later realized the story is probably two novelettes anyway.)

I’d hoped to pour my efforts into finishing that story, along with expanding and revising a couple other stories in the same series, so they fit into a coherent whole but could still be read independent of each other. Instead I spent the summer plagued with writer’s block while wrestling with a different story. My own impatience and failure to respect my writing process only dragged things out, leading to frustration and frequent retreats into computer games. It made for a disappointingly unproductive summer.

Then I went to Japan for three weeks. And it was amazing. It rained the whole time, and even so, it was quite possibly the best trip I’ve ever been on.

Between preparing for the trip, the trip itself, and various distractions in its aftermath, I went for a month or two without really writing, reading fiction, or playing computer games. I decided to resume the first two, but not the third, and see how long I could keep up my “no computer games” streak. I started writing a novel, and dug into my reading backlog (also novels). And it turned out, life without computer games was pretty nice. Even if I wasn’t writing more than I had been, reading more novels felt like a much better use of my time than mucking about with digital distractions.

So I gave up computer games.

20 years ago, this would have been unthinkable. As a lad, I considered myself a pretty serious computer gamer. But starting late in high school, computer games and I stopped clicking the way we used to, and we’ve been growing apart ever since. My computer gaming has been sporadic for years. In 2016 I built a computer (because we needed a new one) with the idea I’d play games on it, but mostly my wife uses it to surf the internet and watch Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. (I consider this a worthy use of the hardware, as both my wife and Miss Fisher are awesome ladies.)

I won’t go as far as to say I’ve permanently cut computer games out of my life. But any forays will be in brief intervals, and even fewer and farther between than they already were. I’ll also be limiting myself to games I can play through once and be done with. Nothing open-world or open-ended that might suck me in and interfere with writing time, like they did over the summer. I’ll stick to games that are more like my favorite kind of novel: self-contained, with potential for sequels or rereads (replays), but not requiring either.

Oh, yeah, and I got into an Odyssey Online course, taught by Beneath Ceaseless Skies editor Scott H. Andrews. So, that’s awesome. BCS is one of my favorite fantasy short fiction market — I listen to every podcast episode — and I’m honored and excited to have the opportunity to learn from Scott.

In the coming year, I plan to: finish a novel (maybe even start shopping it around to agents), finally finish that novella/novelette series I mentioned above, participate in a flash fiction challenge and thus write more flash pieces, participate in the Odyssey Online class (in January and February), participate in the third year of my online writing group’s February intensive, make my first appearance at Capricon (also in February(!)) where I am scheduled to be on and even moderate several panels(!), attend Windycon as per usual, and hopefully get around to revising some other odds and ends I wrote this past year; not necessarily in that order. (Really hoping February doesn’t kill me.)

I didn’t sell a single story this year, but that’s at least partially due to my poor writing output. I hope, and even expect, that 2018 will be different.