Every day, we make thousands of choices, most seemingl inconsequential. What if we changed just one of those? How different would life be?
Late. I’m going to be late. I’ve got to leave the house right now, but I can’t find the car keys. Where are they? They should be right here, where I always put them, except…
Oh. Found them. In my pocket. So I wouldn’t forget them. That’s what I get for being in a hurry.
I can still make my appointment. Maybe. If everything works just right and there isn’t any traffic and…
Stopped. Bumper-to-bumper traffic on the interstate. In front of me is a sea of brake lights. Why isn’t anyone moving?
Wait. All the way up there. Flashing lights. Fire trucks. Ambulances. Police cars. Must be a wreck.
Traffic merges to get around it. We inch forward. I’m so late. If I hadn’t been so slow getting out of the house, maybe I could have been beyond the wreck before it happened.
We’re closer. Now I can see it. Awful. Crumpled metal. Broken glass. Firefighters working to free the victims.
Perspective. I’m late, but I’m okay. Not like those poor people.
What if I hadn’t been delayed? Maybe I would have been in the accident. Maybe I would be pinned in the wreckage and listening to the machinery cut me out.
But what if my being there changed things differently? What if my presence had changed the spacing of those cars and no wreck ever happened? We would have never known, yet no one would have been hurt.
In last week’s musing about the Titanic, I highlighted the sheer randomness of that iceberg being in the path of that giant ship. So many things had to go wrong to sink the unsinkable. A few minutes one way or the other, a little north or south, an early spotting of the danger, a change in speed. What ifs.
How many twists and turns has my own life taken? If I changed just one little thing, how different would my life be-for good or bad?
My one and only speeding ticket came on a Sunday morning in Charlotte. I exited the Brookshire freeway to Independence Boulevard like I had hundreds, if not thousands, of times before. Yes, for all you people who have moved to Charlotte since, Independence was a road, not a freeway.
At the base of the exit ramp, among a sea of orange construction barrels that had been there for a couple of decades-as a kid, I thought they were permanent-a traffic light waited at the first intersection. A Krispy Kreme sat on the corner. The doughnut shop and the traffic light are both in the dustbins of history today.
I don’t remember a single time before that morning that I went through that intersection without stopping. Usually, it took two or three cycles for traffic to work through it. Even without as many cars, we inevitably stopped for the red.
But that morning, the light was green. A remarkable moment of fate. Because I didn’t have to stop, I continued my freeway speed off the ramp and onto the three lanes of concrete heading east. To the right, in a parking lot just a block down from that Krispy Kreme, sat a Charlotte police car. The officer’s radar gun pointed right at me.
What if the light had been red? I wouldn’t have been speeding.
Nor would I have learned that the speed limit was 35 and not the 45 I had always thought. The officer politely explained that little detail as he scribbled out a ticket.
Or what if the officer hadn’t been there? Maybe I would have gotten away with my mistake. Maybe I would have learned that speed limit the hard way some other day.
Or maybe I would have wrecked a mile down the road because I was going too fast.
Or maybe I wouldn’t have learned from that ticket, changed my driving habits, and been in another wreck months or years later.
My Ever Patient Partner in Life was in the car with me that morning. What if I hadn’t accepted the job offer that took me back to Charlotte? If I hadn’t returned to that city, maybe I wouldn’t have met EPPIL? If I hadn’t, would I be living in Asheville, writing novels and this very musing?
Maybe I shouldn’t wonder about such things, but that’s the curse of my imagination. I see a stranger walking down the street and wonder about her life. Her job. Her family. An international spy stealing security secrets? A teacher educating the next Einstein? A tired mom dealing with unruly kids?
A shopping cart in a grocery store. Why that combination of goods? Is he hosting a party? Friends over for a football game? Or maybe he’s going home to an empty apartment?
The fun part about that game is if I don’t like the story, I do it over again in my imagination. Same objects, different story.
Now people who know me will hide their purchases, worried my imagination is painting pictures. It probably is, though I’m too polite to tell you.
The most common question every author gets is where do your stories come from. It’s a hard question to answer, but basically it’s playing what if.
What if a six-year-old boy disappears playing in a park and then reappears as a teenager a decade later? How does his family react? Jaxon with an X.
What if a man approaching the end of his life has a random, insignificant event happen to him, like his prized car is stolen? Does he confront his past and create a new future? Liars’ Table.
My first novel, The Lottery, was a what if about what ifs. We all are products of luck-where we are born, who our parents are, and who our first friends are. All those what ifs drive Nathan Thomas’s life.
That’s the fun of writing fiction. Take a character-good or bad-and start asking what if.
But in real life, we have to play the game too. It makes me wonder something.
What will happen today that will change the course of my life? Will I even know it when the direction changes?
Gratuitous Dog Picture: Serious Little Prince
His Royal Highness Little Prince Typhoon Phooey never explains his missions, but the serious expression says it’s critical. Must be some high priority mischief on the horizon.
On The Website This Week
Vocabulary Word of the Week — Matutinal
July survey results — Who Buys From Bookstores?
Take the August survey (LAST CHANCE! Closes August 31) — Pumpkin Spice: Love it or hate it?
Make choices wisely this week. See you next Monday.