Category Archives: entropy

The truth and reconciliation

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My body is not one. It has shown itself now to be a collection of minor beings struggling to work together without really knowing how. I felt them begin to pull apart, these pieces of me, my own free floating awareness pitting me as an observer against my-selves. As I lay in convalescence after the harrowing break, with the black rock of my own death still cold in my hands, I ask again and again, “how did this happen?”

How and indeed why – the questions come and go like Prufrock’s ladies sometimes louder than before, sometimes softer, always there at least somewhere in the background. The science is clear even where it is ambiguous. The autoimmune disease turns my best defender against me. Now my oh-so-powerful body attacks me. It cannot tell the difference between me and my enemies. It attacks with full force like a mad dog that doesn’t know what it’s doing and can only lash out, because that is now the nature of its being.

My body is not one. A beast lies within, ready to attack at some semi-random moment when something wakes it up. The beast wasn’t always so. It was my friend in older times, defended me against the world and kept me safe, until something flipped and everything changed. A gene was switched, some of the doctors will say. Something triggered it like too much stress, spicy food, or alcohol. It feels like possession, like something outside stepped in and captured this part of me and turned it rogue, like a son who attacks his father because in his greed and hubris he cannot be who he was born to be. It feels angry within me; it has something to say, only it has no words and can only attack what it cannot understand.

My body is not one. It is not what it was. After the attack, this time, they had to cut away a big piece, and what was once complete and then quite sick is no longer there. It was cut out by carefully trained hands, that piece of my body turned against me by the beast. It was cut away to stop the harm, a piece of death arrested, excised, and placed into a bin for further study, when the doctors will try to figure out why and how. With the diseased part of me gone now, they say I’ll be able to start over. With the resection went the larger risks, some of the cancer prospect, and the places where the beast fed on my life itself.

My body is not one. It will never be one again, even when I get better. I will have to care for the beast and love it surely as one loves the rogue son – for he is mine and I cannot deny him. I must forgive the wrongs and find a new way to love myself and my-selves, believing in a kind of healing I’ve never imagined before. The doctors have cleaned up the mess and put the beast in a box. I’m being redrawn and reconnected, like the overhaul of plumbing in an old house, a renovation in flesh and blood.

My body is not one. Part of it has died, part of it is new, part is restored, part must be contained. What did the doctors see when they began the renovation? Maybe that’s not even a question they ask. They just do their best and move on, repairing harm and ending suffering. Is it up to me to see what I need to see? The doctors came back and told me that I was young even though I felt old, that I was healthy even though I felt sick, that I was already getting better even though I was racked with pain and doubt.

My body is not one. Yet all must be reconciled. It cannot just be contained. It cannot be a regime of toleration. We cannot agree to disagree, play nice, share the sandbox. We must transcend that which divides to form a new self even while the rest of our clamoring selves continue their cantankerous dialogue down beneath. I read the letters of Saint Paul to myself over and over again, on building a church of love from disparate groups and individuals who want to belong together. Saint Paul comes to us with words soothing and stern, asking us to let love be our guide, the same self-sacrificing love shown to us by the Savior – for us to enact in our own lives until we return to Him and are one again.

Can my body be one? I have to ask even though I suspect it will always be at the very least a balancing act between reality and desire. Every day will be a challenge to keep my-selves together in a common vision of who we are. It will be time and sweat and hard work even when I know something is different inside. The doctors will tell me I need to be vigilant because the beast cannot be tamed forever, even with the greatest love I can give. I can never trust fully. The beast has taken that away even though I must love my beast-child while never turning my back.

Can my body be one? Without trust there can be no reconciliation. But how can I trust the beast? Maybe that is not the right place to start: rather, I can begin by calling it what it is and not what it feels like. It’s not a beast or a rogue son. It’s a mistake, there only because it is. We can’t know how it came to me, except to know that my mother shared some of these symptoms and, in the end, succumbed to her own autoimmune demon via multiple sclerosis. She struggled so hard to know why, only I don’t think there’s a why. Illness is as much part of life as health.

What is it, if not a beast? Is it me? Could it be that simple? It may be an aberration, something most people don’t deal with, but I’m not the only one. Rare perhaps but we are many, and as I look around me perhaps not rare indeed. We are who we are, and this is part of me, as much as missing nine molars is part of me. Those teeth were never there and my mouth ends in gum lines where others have teeth. Yet I eat and have a bright smile that warms hearts and helps me say hello. It’s nothing more than who I am, a man missing a lot of molars, with a baby molar still there on my right side at 52 years. And now, a man with Crohn’s Disease and a long life ahead.

Reconciliation is never complete. It is an ongoing action, something practiced, never done, always incipient. The virtue of reconciliation is that it is always on the verge of its own demise, challenging us constantly to make it real. The daily exercise of reconciliation is a stand against entropy, casting hope into the world. Reconciliation is a pathway, a bridge from one way of life to another. Reconciliation keeps the pieces of me together and holds out the hope we need even when the disease itself will always be there, even if only in shadows.

My body may not be one. But all the pieces are mine. Reconciliation keeps us honest and gives us a chance.

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Notes and credits

The opening photograph is the author at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn following emergency surgery for a burst colon, January 27, 2016. The second photograph is flowers in my room, sent by family.

 

 

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E/F – The glass of life

God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good (Genesis 1:31).

Life is full of contradiction, and so are attempts to understand where life came from, why we are here, and what will become of us.

An old English proverb proclaims:  There but for the grace of God go I. The proverb sums up the randomness of the universe—the order-out-of-chaos, the utter, unexplained, and unaccounted for contingency of life itself—as a matter of Divine will.

Some have interpreted this idea darkly, as for example the Reverend Jonathan Edwards, whose God is angry and holds sinners over the pit of hell “much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire.”  For Edwards, only God’s “pleasure” or “arbitrary will” stood in the way of eternal suffering, and the sinner “hang[s] by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it …”  Lions and tigers and bears seem meek by comparison—oh my.

For those who dwell on the goodness of the Earth, however, life as a gift of grace is a liberating thought, providing the freedom to leave other-worldly issues alone.  Instead, one’s gaze turns to the things that matter in this world, and in this moment a new kind of human freedom is born.  The world beyond this one is indeed arbitrary and unknowable, but in this world what we do matters.  Here we, not God, are responsible.

This notion of contingency, of the arbitrary nature of causality in the universe, isn’t a terribly God-bound thought.  The grace of God in the proverb can be understood in quite godless terms as the general force of randomness as it functions in the entropy of the universe.  Either way, life is contingent on a lot of things that are completely out of our control, and in that contingency, ironically, good and evil are placed in human hands and human hands alone.

The pitcher and its window sill

A couple months ago, I had a party.  I’d moved into a new apartment and wanted to share the space with some friends.  We prepared for the party all day, cleaning house and eventually going out to buy some good cheese, wine, bread, the makings of spinach salad, and such.  Along the way, my girlfriend bought a dozen yellow roses.

After the party, once the roses had dried, I took the petals from the stems and placed them in a bowl.  I had hoped they would smell like roses and I would crush them to place them in a bowl as potpourri.  Alas, they never smelled so good, but the yellow petals were very pretty and I put them in the pitcher, which sits on the window sill and now adds a dash of yellow to the room.

On this window sill in my living room, I keep a number of things.  There is a ceramic covered bowl that I bought in 1989 the first time I ever went to the Ann Arbor Art Fair.  It was made by Rob Wiedmaier, who worked out of St. Joseph, Missouri.  Next to that is a little wooden toy sailboat that my son made from a kit he received in the gift bag at another boy’s birthday party.  And then there are three photographs of my family.

Buddy-Buddy, Grandpa #1

In the first photograph, we have the Krupas, from about 1941 or so.  The patriach, great-grandpa Krupa, stands in the center.  His three children are there—Joe, Johnny, and Annie.  Joe was my grandfather, who my brother and I called “Buddy-Buddy,” because he that’s what he was, our buddy.  Next to great-grandpa Krupa is my grandmother, Joe’s wife, Mary Niznik.  She’s is holding my mother, Mary, who is about one year old in this photo, looking bright with her Shirley Temple curls.  These were good Slovak people from the hills of the Monongahela Valley in western Pennsylvania.

Buddy-Buddy was a steelworker. After he died in 1969, my grandmother came to live with us, and for the next seven years, she was the most wonderful storyteller, babysitter, friend, and ally my brother and I ever had.  She made stuffed cabbage roles, she ground her own meat, and she made the Easter Bread every year, just like in the old country, which she called “Austria-Hungary.”  I took Joseph as my confirmation name in the memory of my Buddy-Buddy.  My brother named his son Joseph.

Grumpy, Grandpa #2

The next photo over is of my other grandfather, Ernest John Guidry, III.  In the photo he is old, in his mid-70s, sitting in his back yard decked out for Mardi Gras.  My brother and I never called him “grandpa.”  We always called him “Grumpy,” a nickname that my mother gave him because he was always so jolly and full of life.  He had 17 grandchildren, and he called each and every one of us “Peanut.”  When this photo was taken, he had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.  He died within a year or two of the diagnosis, thankfully, we all felt.

The good fight

In the final photo, half hidden behind the rest on the window sill, are my mother and father.  They were photographed in the den/living room of their house in River Ridge, Louisiana, the house where I grew up.  I remember the first time I saw the place.  It was in 1973, late summer. Mom took my brother and I there—we were all of 8 and 9—and there wasn’t much of a house.  Just a slab of concrete on a sand lot with lots of trees all around.  There were only four houses on the street.  A couple months later, there was a house on our slab, and we moved.  Such it was in the 70s.  My father still lives there.

The photo is from the better days, before the multiple sclerosis put mom in a wheelchair and changed her body and all of our lives in ways that are all but impossible to describe.  She passed away on June 27, 2007, and for her funeral mass, she had the following read from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, which I forever think of when I think of her—

I for my part am already being poured out like a libation.  The time of my dissolution is near.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. —2 Timothy 4:6-7

Consider the lilies

Such is life, with no reason to be and no reason to end, but every reason for the living to live.  Do not ask, but live.  Run the race you are given.  Be simple and don’t strive.  Be like the flowers of the field.

lilies

Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. —Luke 12:27

Notes and Credits (Grandpa #3)

The photographs of the pitcher, the window sill, and the lily were taken by author.  The window sill was photographed as it appears in my living room.  Behind it, through the window, is the Bowling Green of the Prospect Park Parade Grounds in Brooklyn, which has been the photographic subject of a few postings so far.

The lily grows in my apartment building’s garden next to the sidewalk.  The garden isn’t kept or tended very well.  It mainly just grows there, though I do see Bart’s mother, the landlord, sweeping and cleaning and watering from time to time.  I saw the flower when returning home from a run in the park with my son.

Of all the people in the photographs, only one is still alive, my father.  He is 70 years-old now, in quite robust health, and determined to reach 100.  His odds are better than average.  His father, who was pictured as described, died at 77, quite young for our family.  My father’s mother died at 91.  His grandmother, EJ’s mother, died at 101 or 102.  The rest of our aunts and uncles are in their 80s and 90s.  My odds, on the other hand, are something of a split decision, for my mother’s side of the family—the Krupas and Nizniks—mainly seem to die in their 50s and 60s.  Mom was 67 when she died, like her mother, who made the cabbage rolls and the Easter Bread.  Buddy-Buddy was about 58 when he passed on.  There but for the grace of God go any one of us, on any given day, at any given age.

For the record, my son and his cousins call my father “Grandpa,” because that’s what he is.

The Family Krupa, c. 1941

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The truth and amoebas

The mighty amoeba

Your body isn’t your own,
exposed for all it really is:
permeable, full of holes,
part of the world.
A floating thing tossed and spit
on tumbling water not always clear,
you become home to others,
little animals here
at play in the world.
You could be a tree, or grass, under
tiny feet that make no sound of their own,
their steps heard in quickened heartbeats
and restless groans
that shake the world.
You’re full of holes that leave
you open, a window lost of glass,
panes rattling, short of breath,
waiting, waiting, hoping to pass
this sense of a world
stumbling moments from death,
moments from life.

____________

The name of the poem is Sickness.  I wrote it in Belém in February of 1993, as I was coping with the onset of amoebic dysentery.  It was rather a rough time, and this, the worst and latest in a cascade of different ailments since my arrival in Brazil the previous November.  I was adjusting to my new home, I told myself, but I began to re-conceive my relationship to the world.  Except for a bout of the flu at age 9 and a one-day bug at age 13, I’d never been seriously ill in my life.  When I met the amoebas, my body-as-fortress gave way to a new understanding of myself as a being in the world, no different really than a bug, participating in the world along with all the other creatures of existence, open to all those creatures, part of the landscape.  In the world – the amoebas helped me understand Heidegger and Sartre.

We’re all part of the landscape here, guests of each other, parts of each other.  Somewhere in the human genome, shot through my body and yours, there is DNA that we inherited from a common of ancestor with amoebas.  According to Richard Dawkins in his lovely The Ancestor’s Tale, our most recent common ancestor (MRCA in biospeak) would have existed between about 1.3 and 2 billion years ago.  This being, some kind of single-celled thing, would have eventually given rise to amoeba and other protozoans, in one evolutionary path, and the things that became plants and animals on another path.

Most recent common ancestor, collapsed tree

All creation is locked in struggle for the limited energy of this world.  This struggle produces rainforests when so many beings stretch to outdo others in an effort to trap the sun.  The struggle produces abundance as well as scarcity, cooperation as often as annhiliation, and a long-standing collaboration between us humans and the hoards of friendly bacteria (and even some amoeba) that live inside our bodies and help us be “human,” as it were.

Notes and Credits

A really interesting article about amoebas can be found here, by Wim van Egmond, and it includes really great photos of amoebas in action.  The photo of an amoeba at the beginning of this posting is taken from the site, Helpful Health Tips, which discusses the causes and treatments for amoebic dysentery.  More detail on the different kinds of amoebas can be found in this piece on Innvista.  Getting past dysentery meant mountains of Flagyl and a lot of examinations and tests, not only in Brazil but also after I got back to the US in 1993 and in 1994.  I never was the same again, but then again, were we ever?

When I was looking around the web for amoeba-related sites, photos, and such, I came across this company, Rogue Amoeba Software, LLC, and it’s blog.  It has nothing to do with this post specifically, except that it’s a very cool name for a company, and especially suggestive for a software firm.  Our computers and their software are, like our bodies, permeable, full of holes,
part of the world
.  We’ve made information systems in our image, both on purpose and by accident, just as it was presumed by some we ourselves were made.

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The truth and fingerprints

Inside all things, if you look hard enough, you’ll find a unique code.  It might be a genetic code.  It might be the traces of carbon-14 in tiny plant spores embedded in the rocks at the bottom of an ancient lake.  The layered patterns of sediment that tell you this could only be the Grand Canyon, for no other place on Earth has this precise pattern.  Or the tips of your own fingers.  Like zebra stripes and leopard spots, our fingerprints are indistinguishable from a distance but unique up close.  There’s something elegant and utterly beautiful in all this.

Fingerprints, of whatever kind, help us find out things that are true.  Fingerprints help us identify who committed a crime.  Fingerprints can become keys that open doors to secure places, protecting those spaces from harm or wrong-doing.  DNA fingerprints help us know who really fathered a child, or where our ancestors lived.  Fingerprints help us know things we couldn’t otherwise know.  Fingerprints are hard to erase without deformation.  Fingerprints keep us honest.

But that’s not all.  As long as we have fingerprints, we know we’re alive.  Whether DNA, carbon-14, or the tips of our fingers, fingerprints are very high-level expressions of order, and rocket scientists will tell you that order is intimately connected to life.

Here’s what they mean by order:  fingerprints carry information that can only be in one place.  This is the epitome of order.  Fingerprints tell you what to count on, so that nothing is unexpected and everything is predictable.  It’s the way mom wanted your room to be:  everything in its own place.  The opposite of order is randomness.  In a random world, there are no patterns, nothing you can recognize, and nothing you can count on.  Everything is new, everywhere you turn.  Memory ceases to be useful in a random world, and we’re all Leonard Shelby.

Stepping down from fingerprints, there are many other forms of order, which can occur in multiple places – making them a little more random than fingerprints, but somewhat orderly, nonetheless.  For example:  the behavior of electrons along copper wires or in magnets.  Wallpaper.  Or the herd-like behavior of people, who at the social level are every bit as predictable as they are “unique” at the individual level.

This is where individuality and order begin to clash, because they’re not supposed to be related to each other.  Fingerprints = individuality.  Fingerprints = order.  Therefore, individuality = order.  How can that be?  Individuality is the opposite of order, right?  Back to Leonard Shelby:  in complete randomness, everything and everyone is different but totally lifeless.  Recognition is meaningless, knowledge is impossible, and therefore individuality is impossible.  What we call “individuality” must be a symptom of order, for without order nothing could exist.  Individuality, as an experience, must be somewhere between the expression of complete uniqueness (a fingerprint seen up close) and a kind of order that says “this is a pattern” (fingerprints seen from a distance).  People are like wallpaper.

The trouble is that order is everywhere on the decline, and this has life-threatening possibilities.  Orderly things are signs that the universe hasn’t exhausted the energy that makes non-randomness (e.g. life or fingerprints) possible.  Orderly things are not always “alive” by our definition, but they make life possible if we can tap their energy.  Atoms, for example, are orderly things that contain a lot of energy.  Try splitting one (but don’t do it at home).  Order = energy.  And energy = life.  Without energy there would be no life.  Living things are, by definition, orderly and full of energy, but they get their energy by consuming it from somewhere.  The laws of rocket science tell us that this is a losing game:  energy can only ever be spent and never really recovered or recreated.  This is what the rocket scientists call entropy.

So here’s the paradox:  life stands in contrast to entropy.  Life takes and spends energy, and spending energy only increases the entropy of the world.  Life is the struggle against entropy, but no matter how you cut it, the truth about life is that living can only contribute to entropy.  To live is the act of dimming the possibility of life in the future.  It’s an awful, yet beautiful, burden to live with.

The beauty of uniqueness – of the self, of being alive, captured in the fingerprint as the epitome of order and therefore the fullest expression of living being – is itself an act of destruction.  Preserved, it is not life.  Moving and living, it only contributes to our mutual undoing, but it is all we really have.  As Keats reminded us:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

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