And now for something completely different…

Chaos theory is the study of disorder or randomness or unpredictability in what otherwise seems to be predictable space. It’s also about finding a certain order in the chaos. It has become a trendy topic but not a new one. Its origins are found in 1800s science and mathematics (some would argue even earlier).

Chaos theory is sort of like studying weather predictions. There are predictable trends, but never without a strong element of the unknown. Yet even in the chaos, there is order. A tornado operates as a tornado, never as an earthquake.

In engineering, we call a predictable system a well-behaved or stable system. But even a well-behaved system can sometimes behave unexpectedly, given the right stimulus. That brings me to what I wanted to share today.

My engineering job requires quite a bit of travel. On one trip, I checked in to a hotel near a familar place on the edge of the California desert. I dragged my luggage up to my room, opened the door, dumped my stuff, closed the curtains and fell backwards on the bed, arms and legs spread in a combination of success and surrender.

That hotel room entry was totally predictable for me after an all-day trip from the east coast that included rental cars, plane rides, airport hassles, and a combination of waiting and rushing but not much else.

I was lying on my back in the dark, staring at another ceiling of yet another hotel room, just like I’d done a hundred times before. But this time something was different. A pulsing red glow lit up the entire room, turning the room red, then black. Red. Black. Red. Black…

I sat up to find the source of the annoyance. The message light on the room phone was flashing. Assuming it was one of those, “Welcome to our hotel, let us know if we can make your stay more enjoyable,” messages, I tried to ignore it. The flashes were just too annoying. I lifted the receiver and followed the automated directions for playing the message. Here’s what I heard:

“Susan, I’m in big trouble. I don’t know what to say to Brandon or Robbie about how you got the baby, so call me. I don’t want to go home until I know what to say. We’re both in big trouble.”

I keep journals to help maintain my sanity and to collect opportunities to explore  insanity through writing. That’s how I remember the exact message I heard that day.

I must have played the message at least five times. In the recorded voice, I heard something between genuine concern and terror. There was also a healthy amount of desperation there. I hit save and hung up the phone. The flashing red stopped but I couldn’t rest after what I had heard.

After some head scratching, I concluded that Susan (whoever she was) had checked out before the call came through. Or had she heard the phone ring and ignored it? Or did she take the kid and run? Or had the caller simply get transferred to the wrong room? Guess I didn’t conclude much after all.

Was this a child custody case? A kidnapping? So many possibilities. Or were the girls, Susan and whoever the caller was, the only ones doing the right thing? Were Brandon and Robbie bad news for the girls and the kid?

I went back to the front desk to tell them I didn’t know what. Would telling others about the message do more harm than good? What could they do? What should they do? I had no clue if I’d heard a crime in progress or a rescue that saved the life of a kid.

I chickened out. I decided to go back to my room and just call the front desk, and ask them to listen to the message for themselves. Surely they had the capability to monitor and play back all messages from incoming calls.

When I got back to the room, I tried to play back the message again before calling the front desk, hoping to catch something that I’d missed earlier. The mesage was gone. I was positive I recorded it.

All I heard was a cold robotic recording saying, “There are no messages in your mailbox.” I hung up and tried it again. “There were no messages in your mailbox,” the robot repeated. Apparently, the front desk had reset the voicemail service for their new guest, me. A fresh start. I decided to do nothing more.

Over  the years, I’ve wondered about the people involved in whatever series of events drove the nameless girl to leave the message for Susan, whoever she was, to warn her about whoever Brandon and Robbie were. The baby, whoever she or he was, should be old enough to walk and talk now.

In the Dean Koontz book, Breathless, one of the characters who studies chaos theory says, “With every chaos is an eerie disorder waiting to be revealed.”

In chaos theory, the “eerie disorder” is called strange attractors. Strange attractors create chaotic regions that predictable paths find. Sometimes again and again.

Sometimes through chaos, the path back to predictability is found, if only for an unpredictable amount of time.