Sunday, April 19, 2009

Butterfly Effect

Sometimes, just the act of stopping and considering all of the decisions that had to be made and all of the events that had to happen to bring you to a particular moment in life is will take your breath away. This happened to me recently as I spent the day hanging out with my friend D___, for whom I was about to spend three days cat-sitting.

When I first met D___, I automatically presumed he was in his early thirties. I am notoriously bad at age-guessing, but I suppose everyone makes guesstimates in order to place people in relation to themselves. From what I knew of D___'s activities (surfing, playing in a band, cooking, writing food reviews), his recent history (one marriage, recently divorced, no children), and his appearance, early thirties seemed like an accurate guess. He seemed too fun and active to be “old,” but he had too much Life Experience to still be in his twenties. Therefore, early thirties seemed like a good compromise.

This assumption, of course, led me to one of my quintessential open-mouth, insert-foot occasions upon which I commented that something-or-other doesn’t happen until you’re “old.” D___ asked me what qualified as “old,” and I said, “Oh, not until you’re, like, 40.” He looked at me very seriously and said, “Allison, I’m 37.” Whoops.

Needless to say, I only give this age anecdote as background information to what I am about to describe as a Wonderful Day spent hanging out with him. Along the lines of my recent Benjamin Button post, I have no problem whatsoever hanging out with “older” people; in fact I quite prefer it. I rarely seem to notice the age difference (except when someone starts a story with, “Back in 1994, when I was in college…” at which point a quick mental calculation makes me shudder slightly), and when I do notice, it doesn’t usually bother me unless others are making a big deal out of it. I have traditionally gotten along with the “more mature” crowd because I like to do things that are “older”: talk, eat, travel, play cards, take walks. Hence, my Wonderful Day yesterday.

It started out with my waking up sufficiently early to go running to, around, and back from Central Park. After that, I took a shower, packed my belongings for the next three days of cat-sitting, and worked on “spring cleaning” my room a bit until D___ called to let me know what the day’s plans were. From there, I trekked down to Jersey City, where I met D___ (and his cats). I dropped off my things, and after giving me a quick tour of his apartment and an overview of the “cat procedures”, D___ took me on a mini Jersey City tour. We walked down to the Hudson River, passing little shops, restaurants, and bars, most of which D___ reviewed in intimate I-have-eaten-there-a-million-times-and-know-the-chef terms. *Most notable were the Taqueria (“Those tacos are like crack around here!”) and the local Halal grocery mart (“I think I butchered a lamb there at 4 a.m. the other night…. No more brown liquor for me.”). As we walked along the water’s edge, I received a mini-education of Jersey City’s historic past (there were some battles from some battles—hence the statues—and there are some beams leftover from the World Trade Center memorializing that historic centerpiece on the NYC skyline). We meandered our way up to a little park that jutted out into the Hudson where a group of friendly hipster/punk/suburbanites (there really is no other way to classify it them) were playing volleyball. D___ knew one of the players and wanted to talk to him, so we sat on a bench and chatted while we waited for a pause in the game.

“They’re good, right?” he asked me. I paused before responding.

“Let me give you a quick-fire way to know if you’re watching ‘good’ volleyball players or not. Look at how they serve. If they’re all serving underhanded, they’re not serious.”

As we talked, the conversation inevitably turned toward food. Our original plan had been to go out for Sushi for dinner (“Jersey City has the best sushi you’ll ever eat!”), but as we chatted, we kept talking about fish, and this made D___ nostalgic for the beach. His parents had a beach house there, and he adored this one particular restaurant where one of his childhood friends was the chef and made exquisite seafood dishes.

“Do you want to go?” he asked me suddenly. I looked at my watch. It was three o’clock.


“There are these tuna nachos,” he described, his eyes glassy, “and this lump crab dish…. My mouth is watering right now!”

And that was that: off we went, on an hour-and-a-half music-filled drive to the Jersey shore.

Upon arrival, we said hello to his parents at the beach house and then walked up to see the beach. We walked right up to the sand and took off our shoes. I glanced at our pale, wrinkly feet as we rolled up our pants; they looked so weak and vulnerable, veins visible through the thin skin, soles poked on the underside by the smallest pebbles. “Winter feet,” D___ groaned, and although I kept silent, a voice inside of me groaned with him. Everything around us shouted “Summer!” but this was a stark reminder of the life I now lead: a corporate life, an indoor life, a life that does not include sitting by a pool every day, reading a novel, making small talk with old ladies and their grandchildren, and slathering on sunscreen to keep suntan from turning to sunburn.

We made our way down to the water, where the waves looked low but fierce. The water was so cold that when I stepped in, after two small waves washed over my feet, they went numb. I stepped back and stood by D___, who was staring out over the water, and--as cliche as it sounds--I began to think about everything that had brought me to this moment.

Obviously I know the facts of my life, so the most amazing part of this mental cascade was not the review of what I already know and have mentally digested, but of what I have recently learned: that is, the facts of D__’s life. D__ studied music. He was in a band—a band so successful that its album was nearly signed by a major record label. Their potential producer wanted them to meet Matchbox 20’s designers. When the deal fell through, Sheryl Crowe asked to buy one of their songs. That’s how successful this band was. In the end, though, they weren’t signed, the record wasn’t produced, and D__ and his band didn’t go on to become the next Fountains of Wayne.

Who would have thought that, after nearly becoming a rock star, this man would take a job as an editor at Wiley, must less in the same department as me? The bass guitar and JavaScript don’t have much in common (as far as I am aware), and yet one of these somehow led to the other. Without failure of the first, the second would never have occurred, and I never would have met D___.

This moment was created by more than just an unlikely intersection of professions, however. Here I was, standing side-by-side in the sand with a man who is currently going through a very sad divorce. However, without this divorce, this very moment in my life would not exist. When D___ left for New Orleans, his wife would say home and take care of his cats, in which case there would be no reason to ask me to do it and, therefore, to spend the preceding day hanging out and making this spontaneous trip to the beach. . . .

I remember how irritated I used to feel when one of my friends would insist, “Everything happens for a reason.” Everything does not happen for a reason, I would think. Life is random and chaotic. I’ve never believed that God is micromanaging every detail of my life, because not only does that undermine the idea of free choice (thank you Protestant upbringing), but I simply cannot imagine that a divine Creator would find it necessary to oversee what brand of toothpaste I buy. However, I am realizing that maybe what my friend meant was, “Everything has an effect.” Every decision, every action, every lack-of-action—all these things add up to form every moment of our lives.

I stood there on that beach with wet grains of sand between my toes, looking out at the churning water, and I realized that I was grateful: grateful that everything had turned out as it had to bring me to that moment. It didn’t make any of the heartache I have suffered less painful, and it didn’t suddenly justify any of the things that have seemed unreasonable or inexplicable in my life, but I was happy to be there, in that moment, feeling the sand beneath my feet and the air against my face and standing beside this kind, newly found friend of mine.

If I can treat even half of the moments in my life like this, I believe I will be well on my way to true happiness.