Which is Worse? Fate’s Fickle Follies, or the Forces of Nature?

by Emily Kemme

A friend of mine recently had her car broken into and her purse was stolen.  All totaled, the vandals made off with close to $600 worth of cash and personal property, plus her credit cards.  The car was parked near a church festival where she was volunteering.  The worst loss was her green card, which will take several weeks to replace, not to mention an outlay of $470, plus half a day spent at the immigration office.  Without it, she cannot go back to Japan to visit her family.  She recently returned from a visit home because her mother had suddenly passed away.  Ironic?  I tend to think it’s another example of the butterfly effect.

That term came up the other day in a conversation with my friend Adam, who told me the concept is typically utilized as a trope for time travel stories:  the protagonist steps on a butterfly and the world veers off its scheduled track on a tangent that changes the course of human history.  I checked into it further, to discover that the original source came from predicting weather.  The term “butterfly effect” was coined by mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz in 1969 in order to describe the sensitivity of air movement in the atmosphere; one flap of a butterfly’s wing can send predicted weather patterns off onto chaotic trajectories.

Timing is everything, and it is nothing, because it appears to me that everything is up to chance.

New York glows at sunset from offshore on the Hudson. This ethereal scene, so near to Ground Zero, makes it hard to envision the damage others can inflict.

Jokes abound that nine months after a Christmas blizzard we’ll be seeing a spike in September babies; I’m sure that someone has calculated the number of baby girls who’ll be named “Irene” around the end of May 2012.  The fact that weather is notably chaotic is perfectly acceptable to scientists; the fact that it controls life goes hand in hand with the theory.  They’re fine with the idea that if an orangutan burps in deepest Africa we may see a horrific hurricane that threatens to swamp New York City and swallow Vermont.  Even if the last remarkable hurricane that hit New York was in 1938.  This is because weather patterns are considered to be nonlinear systems.  I took a peek at linear versus nonlinear equations, something my kids can do in their sleep, and became dizzy.  I did feel a little relieved when I learned that nonlinear equations aren’t necessarily something that can be solved.  Hmmm.  And yet, this is part of the soup that makes up how weather is forecast.  I guess that’s why it’s generally an 80 percent chance of rain. Again, orangutans burping, and assorted other bodily functions go into the mix.

This brand of newfangled math to predict how hard the wind is going to blow is relatively new, although the equations are written in beautiful calligraphy.  I could see that, at the very least.  Being able to tell people that they should put on a sweater, which I had always thought was advice reserved for mothers, has actually been practiced for quite awhile now, dating back to early efforts by the Babylonians in 650 B.C.  Aristotle took a whack at it with his Meteorologica back in the early 300’s, which predates Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack by about two thousand years.  Of course, Aristotle’s book was written in Greek and very likely few of us can follow it.  Franklin and his fellow Almanac writer, Robert B. Thomas, of Old Farmer’s Almanac fame, utilized solar activity and the tried and true method of “what does it look like outside?”  Thomas’ calculations in the early 1800’s, involving astronomy and weather patterns, are such a good determiner of rain-or-shine that the secret formula is hidden away in a black metal box under lock and key in Dublin, New Hampshire, and is still in use today.  Still in print, the Old Farmer’s Almanac is a lively, annual volume, stuffed full of informational tidbits that aren’t necessarily weather-related.  Gardening, recipes, folklore and trivia make up much of its pages; in fact, both Poor Richard’s and the Old Farmer’s Almanac sound remarkably similar to a blog.

So it’s clear as day.  Weather is predictable.  Sort of.  As predictable as is human nature?

Human behavior is as predictable as a roll of the dice. Or as guaranteed as a run of dominoes.  You never know what effect one action might have on another.

I go back to my friend, she of the stolen purse.  Was she an unfortunate victim, the mark of horrible people who disrespect the rights of others, who take advantage of those of us volunteering for the benefit of our fellow men? Or was she in the butterfly’s path?  Was she parked in the wrong place at the right time? Can we predict the actions of our fellow inhabitants on this planet?

We just returned from an extended weekend in New York.  While it was long in days, it was also long in activity, as we celebrated my cousin’s eldest daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.  The timing, of course, was precarious, given the recent weather patterns along the Eastern seaboard, and we waited through Sunday night and Monday to see just what Irene would do to our travel plans.

We only hoped for the best.  A Bat Mitzvah requires years of intensive study in Hebrew, the Torah, cultural traditions and Jewish laws, and we were concerned that Samantha wouldn’t have her opportunity to shine.  It isn’t easy to read and chant this ancient language; in fact, the Torah scrolls don’t provide any sort of guideline for pronunciation or tone.  It’s the kind of thing that’s passed down, generation to generation.

Three generations.

We waited to see how hard Irene would punch New York. When I think of hurricanes, my mind focuses on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and of course, tropical climes. In spite of the fact that The Long Island Express predicted a 25% probability of a tropical storm or hurricane hitting New York City during the 2010 storm season.  Worse, it states that a major hurricane, Category 3 or higher, has a 90% chance of hitting the city within the next 50 years, and that New York City is rated third after Miami and New Orleans for a hurricane disaster. They’re talking of the sort of storm that would put JFK International airport twenty feet under water; the sea would surge through tunnels and subways in lower Manhattan.  Climate change, combined with population growth, has created rising sea levels, which in layman’s terms means a lot more water, and a lot more damage, when the wind begins to blow.

Uncertain of what the prognosis might be, we boarded our plane Thursday morning, having only heard that the power was still out all over  Westchester County.  I called my cousin that night after we’d arrived to check in and figure out details; she’d only just had her power restored.  Irene had made her weekend interesting, what with the upcoming celebration.  I offered our help wherever she needed it.

In spite of having had no power for four and a half days, my cousin’s biggest concern was decorating the boat for Samantha’s party.  You see, if you jump over all the hurdles for a Bat Mitzvah, you get to have a party.  A really big one.  My cousin Tammi excels at creativity, and Sam’s party was going to take the cake, so to speak.  A hotel ballroom just wouldn’t cut it; we were going to cruise the Hudson River at night, making the loop out to the Statue of Liberty and then back in to lower Manhattan.  As I’ve said before, timing is everything.

My cousin was determined to transform a river boat into an underwater fantasyland.

It did happen.  All the cousins and relatives got together and pulled rabbits out of hats.  When I questioned Tammi as to why she wanted the boat decorated, she replied, “It’s just a boat, Emily.  We have to make it special.” And we did, for near 100 guests who admired the balloons, starfish, sparkly fish-themed centerpieces and “Under the Sea” theme.  I was very happy it was simply a theme.  Given the weather patterns, it could have been more likely a reality.

The guests boarded the boat, down on 23rd and FDR Drive.  Transformed by sweaty relatives (combine humidity, September heat, close quarters and water,) and a large dose of sparkle, we chugged out of New York harbor just as the sun began to set.  The DJ started up the tunes, the pre-teens began dancing, and the bar was open.  Even better, there was fresh air and a view.

I never left the upper deck.  For starters, I could breathe up there.  I visited with relatives I hadn’t seen for ages, Dr. K snapped pictures of everyone, we laughed and admired the scenery.  We floated under the Brooklyn Bridge, and then out to sea.  Almost.  Until the boat turned around, back to Liberty Island, where it stalled its engines.

Lady Liberty at night close up is inspiring.  Right past it is the lower tip of Manhattan; Ground Zero, with all its reconstruction, shimmered valiantly, reminding me of how lucky we all were to be there.  I am a first generation American.  It struck me, as I leaned over the railing, savoring the view and the breeze, that there were many who didn’t have the opportunity to live in the United States, to pursue our dreams, to follow the wind, wherever the mathematicians determine it will blow.  

My family was lucky; we escaped from Nazi Germany and have been able to succeed in a new country, the one which Lady Liberty watches over.  We are now Americans, as proud of this country as we were of our former one which cast us out against our will.

We all stood together at the front of the ship and marveled at the rebirth of the Twin Towers.  Their beacon shone in the night.  Our family was reborn here, in this country that accepts everyone.  We’re here because a butterfly fluttered its wings.

Like this blog post? Subscribe to my newsletter so you won’t miss out on future blog posts!


Related Articles


Kay Slighter November 16, 2011 - 6:50 am

This article sent me to the book store to pick up a new Farmers Almanac which I will send to my eldest
sister along with this moving and informational article. She will get it all at Christmas and I know she will
be delighted with the whole thing! Thanks to you, friend, for helping me with my Christmas shopping
as well as teaching me a few things about this crazy universe we call home. Kay

Lynne Hugo September 16, 2011 - 11:24 am

Wonderful! A beautiful job on the ending! Thanks for a great explanation of the butterfly effect, Emily.

Diane Bassett September 12, 2011 - 9:51 am

Wonderful blog. I agree – your best ever! We also use the “butterfly effect” to discuss the power of social change. One person can indeed change the world (to paraphrase Margaret Mead) through the genesis of an individual effort.

Karen Wood September 10, 2011 - 8:12 am

Beautiful….such appropriate timing….the best article ever!!!


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.