Journal Of Applied Misanthropology


If it wasn't for a rare act of charity (well, for me it was charity, for most people it would have been mere common courtesy), you wouldn't be reading this essay, because this essay would never have been written.

To explain -- since I am now single once again (calm down, ladies) I had to do my own grocery shopping and, since I don't drive, I had a lot of bags to carry out. As I was in the process of replacing my cart to get my quarter back (In San Francisco, you need to put a quarter in a lock to get a shopping cart out, because rent control has raised rents so high that shopping carts can be made to double for luxury condominiums), a woman asked if she could have it, since the cart she had removed from the rack was severely damaged. I said 'Sure', since it was a nice day, I was feeling unusually perky, and didn't really care about one quarter more or less. However, she was hesitant to take it knowing I'd be out a quarter (it's so hard to be charitable these days), so she called a security guard, who very helpfully re-attached her damaged cart to the chain, retrieving her original quarter, and leaving the broken cart for the next poor sucker. I asked him why he didn't just remove the utterly useless cart from circulation entirely, and he looked at me with an expression usually reserved for bambis in high-beams. Clearly, such complex actions as moving a cart from the place where carts are to someplace else were thankfully not in his job description, as this concept was as incomprehensible to him as "Go away, kitties, Daddy needs to SLEEP" is to my cats. But I digress.

In any event, the woman proceeded to try another cart -- which was stuck. I helped unstick it, and went on my merry way. Total elapsed time -- maybe 2 minutes.

But in that two minutes, the 'F' bus had departed the stop, leaving just as I exited the store. Had I not stopped to help this woman, or had she not been there at all, I would have caught that bus, instead of waiting for the next one.

But it was in the long, long, long wait for the next one that I mentally composed the bulk of this essay.

And now, here I am, writing it -- consuming a half hour or so of my time I would have spent doing something else, in addition to the half hour I spent at the bus stop. That hour shifts my whole schedule over. Now I will probably not go to Gamescape, as I'd planned, since I'm really grumpy about the busses right now and I have chores to do. I will be eating lunch later than I otherwise would, and, since I'm in a cranky mood, I'll probably seek to console myself with a Big Mac rather than a much healthier nukeable diet lunch. And so on. My whole day shifts because I stopped to help a woman with a defective shopping cart. And each day from now on will be different than it might otherwise have been because of those shifts.

Now think of the strings of events that placed that woman, and that shopping cart, at that point in time. An endless string of coincidences and decisions. Any one of them made slightly differently, and I'd have caught my bus -- and you wouldn't be reading this essay, because it would never have been written, because I wouldn't have been standing at a bus stop bored and grumpy and letting my mind wander down odd paths of thought.

Granted, I've wandered this path before. If some Canadians in the early 80s hadn't liked to ask each other stupid questions, I wouldn't be living in San Francisco in 1998, and this essay, not to mention this whole web site, and my life, would have been completely different. How so?

Tis' simple. Those Canadians turned their pasttime into one of the great fads of the mid-80s, Trivial Pursuit. Which, being a trivial individual, I always won. My college had a 'games night' one night early in 1985, my sophomore year, and I went because Trivial Pursuit was on the list of featured games. While playing, I struck up conversation with another student who, it turns out, was a member of the local SCA, and I managed to get her to take me to an upcoming event, which I enjoyed. At the next event, I met the woman who became my first girlfriend, and who, as first loves tend to, had a profound influence on my life, causing me to question many of my old values and adopt some new ones, the sum of which put me on the path of events which eventually, a decade later (almost excactly) placed me in San Francisco, where I still am.

The odds are, I would never have met the first woman I mentioned were it not for Trivial Pursuit -- her campus life and mine never would have otherwise intersected and, if they had, I wouldn't have had any reason to talk to her. So I would likely never have met up with the SCA, or, if I had, it would have been through a different group of people, and I would have formed different friendships and found different loves, and the course of my life would, likewise, have Very different.

I can track my first four girlfriends through a string of coincidences which began with that single meeting at a stupid 'games night' at a third-rate college that I attended primarily because every college I *wanted* to go to turned me down. Pretty impressive -- but also pretty meaningless. If I hadn't gone there, I'd have still had a life, after all. I might be richer, happier, more content. Or I might be even more of a wretch than I am. Who know?

The point is, the odds of anything happening are astronomical -- but something always happens. Can it be mere coincidence that the woman with the shopping cart problems arrived just as I was leaving, causing me to miss the first bus, causing me to think these thoughts, causing me to write this essay? Yes, it can be. And it was. The universe is the sum of a trillion accidents.

What astonishes me is that anything happens at all. Think of the millions of things that could have prevented, say, World War I. Which would have prevented World War II. Which would have prevented the atomic bomb, the Cold War, the collapse of Communism, and probably Bill Clinton being in office -- and, of course, any of us existing, since the sagans of changes would have meant different sperm would have fertilized different eggs and none of us would be here. All of history, from chipped flint on a stick to chipped beef on toast, is the result of an impossible sequence of one in a billion causes spawning one in a billion effects.

I mean, I'd have died four years ago or so if it wasn't for a random neuron firing in the brain of one of my cats. As I was leaving the house, he jumped up on the counter and mewed pathetically, so I took three seconds to pet him before I left. Had he decided to chase an imaginary mouse instead, I would have left the house three seconds sooner -- and been turned into roadkill by the very large truck running a red light across an intersection I had just reached. Three seconds earlier, and I would have been in the center of that intersection and been killed. I wonder how many thousands of other times I've escpaed death? And when I do die, will it be from something that wouldn't have occured if I'd arrived a second sooner or a second later? Each momentary distraction -- looking in a store window, reading a sign, petting a cat, even stopping to get a pebble out of my shoe -- can mean the difference between life and death.

Consider this -- the time you've spent reading this essay is time you would otherwise have spent doing something else. Perhaps you will miss an article in the New York Times online because you only have so much time for cruising the net, and this essay consumed just enough of it that you cut your reading short. Perhaps you'll ponder my thoughts for 30 seconds or so a week from now, and your own thoughts will float down rivers they may never have otherwise traversed, and you will do something -- write a memo, start a conversation, eat a sandwich -- you would not otherwise have done. And those actions of yours will trigger responses in someone else -- your consumption of the sandwich meant the next person in line couldn't have roast beef, because you ate the last of it, so he has ham instead -- and gets sick, missing work the next day, so some paperwork is filed late -- so someone else can't complete their own assignment, is fired, and goes postal, killing 20 random passersby, including, perhaps, yours truly. Of such is reality made.

So does this mean we're all helpless pawns of fate, doomed to be puppets of eternity? Hell no! The whole point of this essay is -- there is no fate. Reality is a three-dimensional pachinko game played in randomly varying gravity. Every thought, every action, ever choice, destroys an infinite number of potential futures nd creates an infinite number more. We are all makers and destroyers of worlds.

And with that, I'm going to go grab some lunch. Unhealthy burger at Burger King, or slightly-less-unhealthy sandwich from Subway? A trivial decision. Surely, it won't matter much in the long run..?

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