The Observer has, for one reason or another, been thinking of late about the little things, the choices and changes and pauses and coincidences of time and space that can change everything about our lives. Butterflies flapping their wings, creating swirls of air that spin and spin until they are killer cyclones on the other side of the world, are often on the mind of Yours Truly. The Observer is a student of history — both world history and our own — and both are fairly chock-full of moments when for want of a nail, the kingdom, empire, war, storefront, applecart, election, sailboat or civilization was lost. When we think about all the ways this life of ours has pivoted on a pause that kept us out of the place where we would have met certain doom had we arrived there 10 seconds later, it kinda bakes our noodle. You likely have had moments in your life like that, if you think of it.
The thing that most recently got us thinking about all this cosmic billiardry was our friend and colleague Will Stephenson's excellent recommendation that we read an even more excellent long-form story from Texas Monthly called "The Reckoning," by Pamela Colloff. You can find it online, and should. It's the 50-year tale of Claire Wilson, a woman who — as a pregnant 18-year-old — was the first of 46 people shot by sniper Charles Whitman from the tower at the University of Texas at Austin in August 1966. Fourteen people, including Wilson's boyfriend, Thomas Eckman, died in the shooting. Wilson's unborn son also died, struck by a bullet fragment. The brilliance of the piece is that Colloff resists the urge to stop with Wilson's story once the blood had been staunched and the visible wounds have closed. Instead, she follows her methodically through the next 50 years, as she succeeds and fails, pushes for gun control, adopts a son, and generally tries to come to grips with how much her life was changed in a single second and a decision to walk in the shadow of the tower.
The Observer's life, as we've said, has sometimes been like that, choices to be made spinning at us so fast sometimes that we don't know whether to scratch our watch or wind our ass after a while, the future always flowing around the steadily withering willow of us and into the past, decisions and decisions, some of them made for us by age, ignorance, genetics or plain ol' fear of failing, others made for us by politicians who took the results of elections to oaken chambers far away, where they try to gin bullshit and U.S. currency into the blanket that must cover us all but which seems to cover only a few most of the time.
Given this too human tendency to ponder the way it all might have gone, it's no wonder that physicists, from Albert Einstein to Doc Brown from "Back to the Future" to Frank Capra in "It's A Wonderful Life," are always puzzling over parallel universes or using a time machine to fix things. Every life, my friend, is a magic garden of forking paths, each alternate route sealing over with impenetrable hedge the moment your foot turns away, so that you will never even be able to even glimpse what might have been had you pointed your toe in the other direction. Who is to say that the moment you took to scrub the mustard from your tie didn't spare you a life of agony? Or that you might have met your soulmate on that trip never taken to Anaheim? Or that a bullet might spin out of the blue sky as you're walking, minding your own business, with one hand protectively on your growing belly?
Such is life, and absolutely why you should live yours without fear: Because no matter how much you want things to stay the same, yours is changing in ways you can't even fathom, even now, even as you're reading this sentence. But, as our favorite fabulist, Kurt Vonnegut, was heard to say: So it goes. And goes. And goes. And goes.