Today I’m petitioning to repeal Newton’s 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Futile you say. Even if you don’t remember from high school science what the heck that law is, you’re pretty sure we don’t get a choice about it. Joe and I teach some fundamental sustainability principles this way: there are non-negotiable rules on planet Earth. Like Gravity: it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law.
Newton’s 2nd Law is one of them. It says that all energy and matter tends to disperse. Chaos. Entropy. Witness my dog’s hair on my new Eileen Fisher mohair cape. Even though I’m hundreds of miles from home, that hair’s dispersed right along with me.
Well I want to repeal the law because it’s causing Hurricanes in my house. Take last night. My 12 year-old son Sam’s science fair project strewn all over the living room floor, covering every surface of couch table and floor. His twin sister Maya’s weekend overnight bag with underwear, cami’s, and toothpaste spilling over onto said science project. Their Dad aka my husband Joe’s shot of brandy (he does sip it) from the night before along side the Zicam and breathing machine he’d given Sam for his barking cough. A mountain of clean laundry in the adjacent room. Chicken soup remains, maple syrup experiments (the sap is rising in March), various homeopathic remedies all over the kitchen counters. My iPad and cord that I let Maya borrow on the couch competing with Sam’s science project.
Did I tell you I hate clutter? It makes my head spin and puts me in a fighting mood.
I finally “lose it” last night when I go upstairs to the only space that’s usually devoid of junk and find the linen closet spilling into the hallway. 12 years of “dress up” clothes piled on top of suitcases on top of sheets that have fallen off their shelves.
“Oh come on, give me a break!!” I say, not to the culprits, but to the great Creator of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Where is Mary Poppins when you need her? Snapping her fingers and underwear magically returning to their drawers. She could defy the 2nd Law, "why oh why can’t I"?
I don’t lose it like my Dad did: no alcohol fueled Vesuvius eruptions that left us all carrowing. I’ve made a solemn vow not to be that kind of domestic terrorist. I just get very firm. Clear and measured in my voice, I give commands. And they know – as the adage goes -- when Momma’s not happy, ain’t nobody’s happy.
“What the heck happened to the hallway?! That’s it. I’m done. Family meeting! MAYA, SAM, JOE??!!” By now Joe’s nowhere to be found as – did I mention it’s sugaring season – he’s out in the shack, his March-Man castle, boiling away. Oblivious to any laws except those of syrup.
“What are you guys thinking?! I say to the kids. It just makes me really frustrated when we work as hard as we do to come home to a freaking (I don’t swear) Hurricane disaster zone. Sam pick up the Sci Fair now – scissors, glue, scraps off the floor! Maya return my iPad – you know that’s the deal when you borrow it. And who left 10 years of dress up in the hall??”
To my surprise, the kids give me a hug. It doesn’t seem to be a patronizing, manipulative hug. It seems to be one of genuine affection. Then a miracle happens: they start picking things up.
Later at bed time, when the lights are out Sam says, “Mom, with that second law,” – I’d explained it to them in the past when they’d complained that they just cleaned their room last week and it was a mess again -- “All things can’t really disperse right? Like if I leave my book on the counter, it’s not going to move to the sink without my help right?”
I share the exercise we do when teaching this concept to adults and how it relates to diffusion of poisons on our planet. “OK imagine I have a glass of water and a drop of purple food dye. How many people think the drop will stay together when I add it to the water. How many people think it will disperse.” Sam, like everyone we’ve quizzed on this before picks the latter.
“See you know this stuff.” I say to Sam. No books won’t move themselves, but what the law really says is that you have to put energy back into a system to keep it clean. Mary Poppins won’t do that for you. The system of planet Earth is designed to disperse things, from your sox to toxins in the rivers, so to create order out of chaos, we have to add our own clean energy. Do your share plus a little bit more and we’re all good.
Now I’m on a role. And I sense I have their ear.
“OK, Sam your job is to clean the counters in your bathroom of your snot germs before the bus and Maya you empty the trash in there.”
This morning comes. I do choose to remind them of our deal from the night before. Then after breakfast, but before the bus, I take a look up there in that bathroom. It’s shiny and smells of citra-solve and spotless. “Whoo hooo, go Sam, go Maya!” And miracles do happen.
Maybe we don’t have to repeal the 2nd law after-all.