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My father had simple rules. Don’t eat his prunes, don’t drink his buttermilk and don’t flush the toilet while he was in the shower.

His mornings were pure clockwork. Read the paper on the john, shower, dress, eat breakfast, leave. 

This Wednesday was a Wednesday like all Wednesdays. His breakfast was a big bowl of Corn Flakes with strawberries on top and a hot cup of tea. He ate quickly and deliberately. Except for the tea. 

“Dammit,” he yelled, “I just burned my tongue on this tea.” He stared at my mother. “I told you not to make it too hot. Now I’m going to be late.”  

Punctuality was important to my father. Every day, he would leave the house at 8 sharp and walk the four minutes up Robbins Avenue to catch the 8:05 “B” bus. Except today.  

He walked as fast as a man with two back surgeries could. But just as he passed the Penn Fruit, he saw it. The 8:05 “B” bus had come and gone. And he wasn’t on it. He grumbled under his breath and cursed the hot tea. Now he’d have to wait for the 8:15. 

That bus was more crowded, but he managed to get a window seat. As he got closer to Devereaux St., he started to hear the sirens and then saw the flashing lights. It was an accident. A bad one. The 8:05 had been hit by a speeding Chevy Impala and rammed into the light pole. 

He would later learn that many of the passengers were badly injured. And one poor man was killed. “I could have been that man,” my father said. 

But life doesn’t work like that. You see, if he’d gotten to the corner in time for the 8:05, the bus would have stopped and waited until he got on and paid his fare. About 30 seconds. And the 30 seconds meant that the 8:05 would have stopped for the red light at Devereaux. And that speeding Chevy might never have hit it. 

It’s called chaos theory. It’s a mathematical sub-discipline. Because we can never know all the initial conditions of a complex system in sufficient detail, we can’t hope to predict the ultimate fate of that system. 

I didn’t know what it was called when I was 6 years old, but I would bring it up at baseball games. Richie Ashburn gets a walk. He would be thrown out trying to steal second. And then Del Ennis would hit a homer.  

“Damn,” my father would say, “if Ashburn hadn’t tried to steal, we’d have two runs now.” 

Maybe not. With Ashburn on first base, the pitcher might have thrown a different pitch to Ennis. A curveball instead of a fastball. Ennis wasn’t good at hitting curveballs, certainly not for homers. And maybe Granny Hammer, the shortstop, would have moved closer to second base, so that the ground ball that Ennis would hit, instead of the homerun, might have been a double play. Inning over. No runs.  

That, in its simplest form, is chaos theory. A different starting point on the spectrum can lead to different results. When I graduated college, I was hired by an ad agency. Probably the beginning of my lifetime career in advertising. But one of the partners was on vacation that week, so they asked me to wait until Monday to start. The next day, I got a call from the editor of a newspaper who asked me if I’d like to be a writer. At that moment, since I hadn’t started the advertising job yet, I went to the newspaper. And I became a writer. 

Every day, your life is full of speed bumps and forks in the road. A bigger bowl of Corn Flakes can put you on a different path. Another cup of tea could change your life. So, there are no rules. Just one caution. Don’t flush the toilet while someone’s in the shower. 

April 2018
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