Main | Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Budweiser Effect

No, this is isn't a story about drinking. Well, maybe it is...a little. But mostly, it's a story about chaos and the way we delude ourselves into thinking that we have control over our lives, that we have routine, that we create order, that we run things.

The Butterfly Effect, apart from being the title of an appallingly bad movie starring Ashton Kutcher, is the name given to a part of chaos theory that stipulates that no matter how complex or ordered a system may be, the ultimate outcome of events are the result of "sensitive dependence on initial conditions". More than 40 years ago, a meteorologist named Edward Lorenz was trying to create computer models that predicted weather patterns. He noticed that the tiniest alteration in the initial data he fed into the computer would result in a dramatically different result, far more than one would think from such a small data change. Ten years later he gave a speech titled "Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?" You might recall actor Jeff Goldblum's character in Jurassic Park gave an effective demonstration of chaos theory using drops of water on the back of Laura Dern's hand.

We all can cite examples of chaos theory in our personal lives. But we call these examples chance or luck. I can guarantee that you would not be sitting at your desk reading my words right now, if it were not for Budweiser.

Budweiser has always been my drug of choice. If I'm out socializing, I'm drinking Budweiser. Rarely anything else. Sometimes, with a grimace, I'll accept a Rolling Rock or maybe a Miller Lite, but usually not. I'll stop drinking, or I'll go somewhere else. I prefer beer, and I like it cold and lightly flavored. All you beer snobs heading for my comments button right now can just shove it up your collective asses.

On a Saturday night in November 1994, I was in a nightclub called Salvation. It was White Party Week in South Beach and Salvation was mobbed. I was standing at my usual position, with my usual friends, near our usual bartender. I waved to get the bartender's attention and lifted a single finger to indicate that I only needed one Budweiser. He knew that my friends and I all drank Bud and we'd flag our order to him by merely showing the appropriate number of fingers.

This time, the bartender shook his head at me and held his hands out.

"What??" I shouted, cupping my hand over my ear.

The bartender came over and pulled me closer to shout back, "I haven't got any more Bud! The barback went to get some but I guess he's having a hard time getting through the crowd! Do you want something else?"

I shook my head, "No, thanks. I'll try the upstairs bar."

And at that upstairs bar, also waiting for a Budweiser, was a handsome man I'd never seen before. He nodded pleasantly at me, I smiled back, and we started chatting. Eight months later I was living with him in San Francisco.

I would have never met that man if my regular bartender had stocked ONE more Budweiser in his case. I'd have never met him if the DJ had happened to play a song that I liked at that moment, because I would have been dancing. I would have never met him if I'd stopped to use the restroom on the way upstairs. I would have never met him if I'd waited ONE more minute at the downstairs bar, because my friends told me later that the barback arrived with a case of Budweiser as soon as I walked away.

All because of that one Budweiser, events were set in motion that turned my life upside down. I met a man that I was so captivated by that I quit my job. I left all my friends in the world. I said goodbye to my family and my dog and my cat. I packed up my personal possessions and gave away my furniture and moved to California.

I lasted a year with the guy in San Francisco, but ended up staying there for another five. In late 2000, I was at a dance party called Aftershock. This was an after hours party, we hadn't even arrived until almost 6am. Obviously, most of the crowd was on drugs. At some point in the morning, the club opened a small alcohol bar in a tiny, ignored, recessed area of the sprawling club. I rushed over to get a Budweiser. Where I ran into a friend I hadn't seen in years. Who told me about his job in New York. And how I'd love to work there.

And here I am.

All our lives, we plan. We plan our educations, but rarely end up doing what we trained for. We plan our families, but rarely end up with whom we'd imagined. We plan vacations and retirements and relationships and nothing ever turns out like we planned, and yet we keep planning.

Last night I was on the subway heading home, with my iPod on "shuffle". Somewhere around 68th Street, Rufus Wainwright's "Oh What A World" came on. I closed my eyes and was transported away by Wainwright's gorgeous voice. In my reverie, I missed my stop. No big disaster, it was a lovely night, I'd just walk home from the 77th Street stop, I thought.

Standing on the corner of Lexington and 77th, in a group of about 20 or 30 people, a little girl broke away from her mother and darted towards the street. As she pushed through the crowd, I saw her mother mouth some admonishment and reach out. I couldn't hear the woman with my headphones on, but I instinctively reached down and grabbed the little girl's backpack and held her back for a second until her mother reached her. The mother gave me a smile and bent over to chastise the child, as much for the benefit of the crowd as for the child.

On the way home, a thought struck me. What if my iPod hadn't shuffled to Rufus Wainwright? What if, instead of something so beautiful that it caused me to close my eyes and miss my stop, the random bits of digital hooey had landed on something else? And I hadn't missed my stop? Would there have been someone on that corner to stop that little girl from running into traffic?

Maybe, because there were lots of people on that corner. Or maybe my not being on that corner would have reordered the way that people were standing, so that the mother held onto her daughter more tightly. Or maybe a different adult would have been the one to grab her backpack.

But still...I wonder. So much of my own life can be traced back to a single, seemingly trivial, certainly random, triggering event. Was this another example of the butterfly effect? Was my iPod this little girl's Budweiser? I wonder.


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