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A Dose of Strong Coffee and the Chaos Theory

There is a verse from the Torah – near the end of Numbers – that my great-grandfather was fond of quoting whenever someone asked him why he didn't go to synagogue on Saturday mornings: "In any place that you remember me, I will come to you and bless you." He was a religious man, and he always devoted his Saturdays to prayer and study; but if he didn't have to leave his home – which according to Jewish Law, he didn't – then he stayed content within the walls of his apartment on Socrates St., Mexico City, Mexico, entirely oblivious to the goings on of the largest city in the world.

I have always admired this: he lived simultaneously as a law unto himself and in strict accordance with another law – Jewish law, which is not known for its flexibility. Spiritually, he chose to be an inextricable part of a larger structure – a nation with its own laws and ethos – and yet I have never known of an existence more absolute than his. I often wonder how he did it. How was he able to exist both inside and outside of such a tightly knit web?


Recently, one of my roommates introduced me to something called "Chaos Theory." I didn't know anything about this theory before; but while my roommate is a man of Science, he is also, fortunately for me, charitable about it. He sees a place for charity in a field of otherwise unadulterated Darwinism, and I like that about him: I work well with that kind of person.

We began discussing Chaos Theory in the most roundabout kind of way, actually: I had been bellyaching to my roommate about the coffee at the Student Center. It used to be that the coffee there was very strong. You came in for late breakfast, and you served yourself a cup of that tar, and you knew it was going to be a great day. But these days the coffee looks more like a cup of dirty cinnamon tea. As I told my roommate, this simply wouldn't do. Where would I get my coffee now? Where would I continue this ritual of mine?

As it turns out, I am heavily dependent on this ritual, and I call it a ritual in all seriousness: pouring the coffee, holding it, taking that first morning sip – my whole day depends on this. And as with any ritual, consistency is key. If I don't have my coffee this way, any number of things may go wrong that day, and lead to a psychotic episode. This, I later learned thanks to my roommate's inexhaustible charity, is called Chaos Theory.

I was very grateful to my roommate for teaching me this; and since I felt obliged to return the favor, I found something related that I could teach him, too. It occurred to me that Chaos Theory can be as much an advantage in coffee drinking as it is a disadvantage. For example: because of coffee, I always know if it's going to rain soon, even if the sky is clear. I pour my coffee holding my mug far enough from the spout so that the impact causes air bubbles to form on the surface of my beverage. If there are few bubbles, and they fizzle right away, then there is high barometric pressure, and it will probably not rain that day; if, however, there are many bubbles, and they linger there, then the pressure is low, and I know to take my umbrella with me. I'll admit, I didn't come up with that trick, but it's something my father taught me, so naturally I'm proud of it.

A few days after my roommate and I had this inspiring dialogue, I received a package in the mail from my mother. I had told her about my little coffee dilemma a week earlier. Apparently, I struck a note of sympathy by telling her this, because in the package that she sent me I found a tiny French coffee press – sized to serve one cup – and two bags of ground coffee. What can I say? – someone in Florida loves me.

I thought back to that line from Numbers I had heard quoted so often, and I felt myself taking one step closer to self reliance – like a kid getting his training wheels off. I had won: Now I could still remain an inextricable part of that larger structure – that cult of the coffee drinkers – while staying within the walls of my room, oblivious and absolute, brewing my own coffee as strong as I want it. And all this thanks to a simple gift from my mother.


And then I winced at yet another line I remember hearing that same man say: "Make us not needful of the gifts or loans of another human being's flesh and blood." He was quoting the traditional text of the Jewish grace after meals; and, as I recall, he was speaking directly to me. I never knew why he said that to me – it came out of nowhere one night at dinner. But I suppose I'll always be hearing that line, whenever these petty dilemmas and simple solutions come my way. As for now, however: if it isn't too much trouble, could somebody send me some Tupperware, so that my coffee stays fresh? (Hey, Rome wasn't built in one day.)

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