Surprise should be pleasant, not an attack

'WE yell "surprise" when we jump out at someone. Isn\'t this odd? It\'s not "Happy birthday" or "Yay for retirement" or the like, but a reminder: "We are surprising you! We intend this to be an unexpected delight!" '

My favorite surprises don't have a town crier telling me they're surprises.

A park near me featured a Bangladeshi festival with music that transported me to my mother's kitchen.

"Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" was actually good.

And the They Might Be Giants best-of CD I bought, "A User's Guide to They Might Be Giants," had a quietly clever design for its cover.

At first glance, the thick and thin lines seem random, if aesthetic. But they condense at the edge, to turn into the CD's Universal Product Code barcode on the back. The lines turn into a song chart on the back, the length of each corresponding to the length of a track. I laughed out loud at seeing the patterns, the visual wit.

But that's what I should expect from TMBG. They do silly geeky tunes, historical homages, hard rock, wrenching love songs and everything in between with style.

"A User's Guide" would be a good introduction for you, if this is the first you've heard of them.

I called my friend Alexei to tell him about the CD cover, since he used to have a TMBG quote under the signature for all his e-mail.

We talked about a theme of pleasant surprise that runs through TMBG's more spiritual songs. In "She's an Angel," the narrator has a new girlfriend whom he suspects of being an angel:

"How should I react?

"These things happen to other people.

"They don't happen at all, in fact."

We steel ourselves against bad news, but does that even help? And does it stop us from happiness when joy comes to our door?

There's another band like TMBG, but more obscure. I'd lent Alexei "Bargainville" by Moxy Fruvous in early September of 2001.

Then, one Tuesday morning that month, I checked the messages on my answering machine. The first was from Alexei, from the previous night, raving about "Bargainville." The rest were from my mom, and my sister, and my ex-boyfriend, telling me that terrorists were attacking America.

"Surprise" sounds delightful. The other kind is shock, like what we all felt that morning and what still makes the last five years feel like a dream.

Then again, there were a few to whom the events of Sept. 11, 2001 weren't a shock.

The terrorists had planned it, and a few folks in government intelligence had been sounding the alarm on Al-Qaida for some time.

Richard Clarke makes for the easiest example. (I recommend the new "The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation," a graphic novel by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colo'n.)

What is it like seeing a horrible surprise before it happens? What is it like to foresee the coming disaster, like Dumbledore or Cassandra, and have no one listen to you? My stomach twists when I think of the nanosecond before my car accident, when I swore and shoved the wheel and the brake. I can't imagine that moment stretched to weeks and years.

But Richard Clarke remembers.

Surprise is when you see the hidden pattern. And it's hard to surprise us, because we are pattern-matching machines. I suddenly decoded the pattern on a CD cover and laughed. There had to be a setup for the punchline to mean anything. But the only setup a disaster needs is complacency.

I'm missing a pattern right now. Some epiphany will happen, and I don't know whether it'll be a punchline or a punch in the gut.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at