Calculating the value of pie.

piOf all the obnoxious and unpopular universals we have to deal with – gravity, conservation of momentum, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, the speed of light in a vacuum, the way coffee never tastes as good as it smells – the one that seems to be the hardest for most of us to accept is entropy.

Just when we think we’ve gotten a handle on things, figured out how to survive, how to be happy, how to get through the day, we discover that the universe has marched on and the situation has changed. Suddenly all the systems and workarounds that we rely upon to keep us sane no longer work the way we expect them to. The rules have changed on us. Loved ones die, things break down, the places that are important to us become strange and different. “For no reason!” we insist, red-faced and frustrated, but in fact there is a reason: simple entropy.

I own a car that is now entering into its sixteenth year of life. I don’t drive it much, and I take care of it to the best of my (admittedly limited) ability, but nobody’s ever going to mistake it for a new vehicle. The headliner is pulling loose, the paint is dinged, the driver’s-side window no longer goes up and down: entropy. Even if I had shrink-wrapped the car sixteen years ago and stored it in a climate-controlled bunker in the desert, it would still not be the same car it was when it first rolled off the VW assembly line in Puebla, Mexico. Plastics deteriorate, fabrics sag and pull, the same chemical and mechanical processes that created the materials and parts continue long after the papers are signed and the keys handed over, turning gaskets into ash, warping delicate fixtures, and disabling sensitive electronics.

One of the most important features of entropy is its adherence to what is known as “the arrow of time”. This is to say that entropy, unlike any other measurable quantity in our universe, only works one way: things break down with the passing of time, going from more structured, more organized, to less. A muffin, a Maserati, or a man will, given enough time, be reduced to component atoms, and the carbon in an oatmeal muffin is absolutely identical to, and interchangeable with, the carbon in my red blood cells. That carbon will not spontaneously reorganize itself into a bird or a pot roast, not without the expenditure of enormous energy and even more time — during which everything else is still sliding into oblivion.

At absolute zero, -459.67 degrees Fahrenheit (-273.15 degrees Celsius, zero Kelvin and Rankine), everything stops. All activity in the sub-atomic world of electrons and protons ceases, and matter becomes inert and unchanging. This is, however – like the perfect marriage or consumer-friendly air travel – an imaginary state: in the real universe, nothing achieves absolute zero for long. Even in deepest space, beyond the light of any star, the background radiation left over from the Big Bang keeps everything percolating away at about four degrees Kelvin. Things slow down Out There, but they don’t stop. Here, in the world of light and air and heat that sustains us, entropy churns along at a pretty frantic pace. We can irradiate our tomatoes until they glow in the dark, persecute termites and mildew and dry rot with all the passion and inventiveness at our disposal, but in the end, the leftover pasta sauce goes furry and green, the shower curtain has to be replaced every August, and the tires on that bicycle you haven’t taken out of the garage since the Reagan administration crumble away to nothing.

 *  *  *

Make a pie on Sunday, and then eat a slice of it every day thereafter. At some point you will discover that the dish is empty, and there’s no more pie. This is irritating, but it’s not the fault of immigrants, or healthcare reform, or political correctness: it’s just that all pie is finite, you ate all your pie, and sooner or later you have to either make a new pie or find something else to snack on. You have to change. You have to do something different. No rhetoric, no rallies, no ranting on cable news is going to make that pie last forever. The universe moves on; things are consumed, becoming something else; life happens.

I wish I still had the hair and teeth and knees I had at twenty. I wish there were still places on Earth that were represented on the maps by big glamorous empty areas marked “Terra Incognita” and “Here there be dragons”. I wish a new Chrysler Imperial cost $1,500, and doctors made house calls. I wish I could read “The Haunting of Hill House” for the first time, again and again and again.

I wish a lot of things, but the universe really doesn’t give a damn what I wish – the universe has much more important things to do.

So, what are my options? Obviously, pretending that entropy just isn’t happening is not very helpful. Nor is simply throwing up my hands and locking myself into the basement to wait for everything to grind to its messy and inevitable end. Punish the Jews, or the Muslims, or the gays, or the poor, or the people in the big fancy house down the street for the fact that my pie didn’t last as long as I had hoped it would? None of these things is going to make the tiniest bit of difference in the end; I’ll just be making life more difficult for people who are probably no more to blame for my bad knees and thinning hair than the Queen of Sheba. Things are going to change. Tomorrow will never be exactly like yesterday. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just the way the universe works. I can learn to deal with it, change with it, or I can shoot myself in the head before entropy has a chance to wind things up for me. My choice.

For the moment, however, here we are. I’m still going on and on about all sorts of things, and you’ve actually managed to stay with me all the way to here. So sit with me for a bit longer. We’ll share some of my pie.


See what you made me do…

Not my fault! The devil made me do it!

The devil made me buy this dress …

The thing that I find most disturbing about Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s ongoing meltdown is not the crack smoking, or showing up stoned at a charity function for wounded soldiers, or calling a south-Asian taxi driver “Paki”, or threatening — on video — to grab an automatic weapon and slaughter his political opponents. What shocks me most are his constant expressions of outrage and wounded pride at being called to account for his actions.

So many elected officials — not just here in the US, mind you, but even in the sedate world of Canadian politics — seem to reach a certain point in their careers at which they feel that they are beyond the need for apologies, beyond accountability, beyond all personal responsibility. When the shit hits the fan, they blame the fan for the mess that ensues.

Perhaps this is simply an extension of the cult of celebrity that surrounds many elected leaders today: they are described as “media darlings”, “rising stars”, “shining lights” — the same sorts of expressions that might be applied to a pop singer or a professional athlete. Intelligence, hard work, and dedication may be there, but those don’t make very compelling news copy: we’re far more interested in how quickly the individual has risen to prominence, or in whose company, or on the back of what theatrical rhetoric. When faced with this sort of deification day after day, who wouldn’t begin to feel as though he (or more rarely she) is somehow beyond the ordinary rules of right and wrong?

  • Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, called to account recently for a string of obvious and egregious plagiarisms in his public speeches and writings, has made it clear that the skunk in the woodpile is not the high-profile political figure who steals from others, but the press and pundits who keep catching him at it.
  • Former US Representative Anthony Weiner, when caught sending sexually explicit text messages and photos to a series of young women around the country, offered a somewhat half-hearted apology then turned on the media for “persecuting” him — after which he continued to send sexually suggestive messages to women, still complaining all the while of his mistreatment by the press.

In centuries past, public officials viewed bribery and extortion as a perquisite of the job. Why else would anyone subject themselves to the aggravations of holding office? “Baksheesh”, a Persian word that became widespread in the days of the Ottoman Turkish empire, could mean a tip, a contribution, or a bribe, interchangeably; today we pretend that these things are actually separate and distinct, but in politics, little has changed. The line between a campaign contribution and a bribe is drawn with a very light pencil; “personal time with friends” can mean anything from a weekend of golf courtesy of the Koch brothers to a drug-addled rampage in a suburban crack den.

Marion Barry, David Vitter, Larry Craig, Kwame Kilpatrick: the list is depressingly long. In so many cases, the individuals involved had no prior history of corruption or sexual misadventures or substance abuse: only after achieving positions of power and prominence did the imp of the perverse take control. (Admittedly, until these men became important, the mainstream press was hardly likely to be interested in their pecadilloes, but given the microscopic scrutiny that politicians must undergo during the endless cycles of campaigning and politicking, it seems unlikely that ongoing problems of such severity would have escaped notice.) More importantly, once caught with their hands in the cookie jar (or down their boxer-briefs) they are invariably shocked — shocked — that people might hold them responsible for their own actions.

According to British historian Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, 1834–1902): “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” This is a phenomenon that is not difficult to understand, even by those of us who have never had the opportunity to wield — or abuse — power. What Lord Acton doesn’t mention is the inability of powerful men to accept the blame for their own sins, which I personally find much harder to accept. We all make mistakes, but not all of us have thousands, even millions, of other people depending on our honesty and integrity, trusting us to do the right thing — and when in the wrong, to ‘fess up, to make amends, and to make a real and sincere effort to do better in the future.

Whenever Geraldine Jones — frisky alter-ego of funnyman Flip Wilson in the early 1970s — would find herself caught in an indiscretion, she didn’t lash out at her accusers: she generally had the good grace to admit her mistakes, and her excuse — “the devil made me do it!” — was certainly as good as any I’ve heard lately.