How do I define happiness?
One way, at least, is the phenomenon of coincidence.
We’ve all experienced it: Synchronistic events in our lives that please, surprise, or astonish, depending on their relative unlikelihood.
In honor of Gorge Happiness Month, I want to relate my Oct. 11 “happiness” experience.
Some coincidences — “spiritual puns,” as G.K. Chesterton called them — defy belief.
(I read a quote from poet Roberto Bolano that said, “Coincidence obeys no laws and if it does we don’t know what they are.”)
I’ve had a variety of fairly amazing ones in my time, including several connected to my three-month stay in 1984 at kibbutz Sdot Yam, a collective farm-and-industry community on the Mediterranean coast in Israel, where I was befriended by an artist named Niv Neiman.
Our last names are similar, but that is not the coincidence.
Happiness Month invited participants to engage in acts of acts of kindness, gratitudes and moments of silence, with specific daily focus ideas such as “write a thank you note,” “sit and watch wildlife,” “pick a person or goal to focus on,” and “post a gratitude on social media.” (Talk about radical.)
On Oct. 11, the focus was “Reconnect with an old friend.” I did so with two people — my fifth-grade teacher and a person who remains a mentor — and someone I “met” via Niv Neiman.
When I left Sdot Yam (pronounced stote yahm) to return to Oregon, Niv gave me the name of his friend, Brad Mildrexler of Portland, a fellow artist and kibbutz volunteer from five years earlier.
I had returned from Israel in late 1984, but never looked Brad up. We would meet, thanks to a remarkable coincidence, one that might have led to regular contact but somehow did not.
The relevance to Happiness Month was that I had regularly tried to re-connect with Brad for many years. So, I called him again and left him a voicemail Oct. 11, and in an hour he called me back. We talked for a half an hour, both catching up and reveling in the remarkable coincidence that brought us together in the fall of 1985 ...
I was working at the weekly newspaper in Molalla at the time and was in Portland for the day to visit friends. I happened to be waiting behind a van at a red light on West Burnside in Portland when a car hit me from behind, causing me to bump the van. The rear driver was intoxicated and ran away and hid under a car nearby.
The guy in front — the guy I hit?
Yes: Brad Mildrexler.
What are the odds?
I remember being amazed by the West Burnside coincidence.
I must have said something like “You’re Brad? Niv Neiman gave me your name!”
Brad recalls something like, “Your name is Neumann? Like Neiman?”
The exact conversation is lost to time but in that moment Brad and I did little more than exchange info and briefly discuss our Niv Neiman connection. I recall that neither his van nor my car were damaged.
I now wonder: What if we had not collided? What if one of us had not been on West Burnside that night?
Would we have ever met at all?
In any event, we did not do something like find a safe place to pull over and get acquainted. Brad was on his way somewhere and so was I. We talked briefly at the scene as the police sorted it out. We might have agreed to the classic “we must get together” ... another time.
That was 33 years ago. And I have never seen him since.
I vaguely recall we spoke on the phone once ... five years later? Perhaps 15-20 years later? Not sure. It’s a bit of a fog ...
But since that call, nothing.
I’d always been curious about Brad, perhaps a little obsessed with getting to know him, to understand this coincidence and to celebrate the very fact of it bringing us together when we might not have otherwise.
I remember that night vividly, and had always wondered why we never connected, given the strange and unlikely way we met.
But connect we have, and it was exciting to reach each other. And I feel the benefit of connecting with Brad and gaining a sense of closure to this long-ago coincidence.
Epilogue: Brad is 65, a ceramic sculpture artist who also works as a housepainter.
He told me Niv, who is a few years older, has a beachside studio at Sdot Yam now and is close to retiring from his day job at the kibbutz-owned ceramic tile plant.
Brad has seen Niv twice in the U.S. since, including three years ago — when they visited Hood River en route to Timberline.