Molly Fisk: Chaos & Order

The first time I heard the word “entropy” was in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the amazing novel by Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. My boyfriend, Peter, who  loaned me the book, pointed it out specifically, saying it was the silent theme of the entire novel, visible in many scenes, but most memorably in the sweeping of ants out the front door of a house every morning by one of the female characters. If she didn’t sweep the ants out every single day, eventually they’d become too many to sweep, and take over.

This was in 1976, and I haven’t read the book since, so I have no idea what the characters’ names were. I’m also a little unclear on the plot. But the word has stayed with me: part explanation of how the world works, and part warning.

“Entropy” comes from a principle of thermodynamics dealing with energy, which posits that everything in the universe moves from order toward chaos. “Entropy” is the measurement of that change. In Greek it means “a turning toward,” or “transformation.”

In 1976, I was in college, majoring in Folklore and Mythology. One of the people we studied was Claude Levi-Strauss, an anthropologist whose work revolved around the way different cultures bring order out of chaos by making up myths to explain the world. In my 21-year-old mind, these two ideas wound around each other like a double helix: if you don’t keep working against disorder, it will win, and what can help make sense of a chaotic world is to invent stories about how it works, and thereby create some order.

I didn’t invent stories myself back then — it would be decades before I began to write — but you can see where I got the idea that stories could be useful, perhaps even crucial in keeping the world from falling apart.

Fast forward to this morning, when I discovered on my carpet some cat barf. When you have more than one cat, and aren’t around to watch the actual barfing take place, it can be hard to figure out who is ill and why. But just like with Colombian ants, if you don’t clean the mess up it will eventually take over the house. Around here the barf-removal system has three stages: one is the lifting of glop with some dry paper towels and throwing it away. Two is placing wet paper towels over the rest of the evidence for a while and then scrubbing, and three is vacuuming up what doesn’t seem to be scrubbable. Needless to say, I hate this. I would like to put it off. I would like to sell the cat in question, if I could only figure out which one it is. I would like everyone around me to be healthy, please, forever.

But I think cat-barf is my lot. A way for the universe to remind me of the power of entropy. And therefore I tell you this story, as a way to bring some order out of the chaos of Thursday morning, at least in my little corner of the world.

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  • Mickey October 22, 2016 at 6:58 pm

    Cat barf, entropy, chaos, yes. Or, if you have a dog whose owner hasn’t gotten her vaccinated against Parvo and the son went to visit and met a dog who was all over him and the dog had, yes, PARVO! Augh. So fast forward two days later, two puddles of barf. Augh, augh, augh, dog has Parvo, I’m a terrible person, I didn’t get her vaccinated, augh! Then she ate her food and she’s fine. Sigh. And the patio still isn’t organized enough to take pictures. another sigh. Thank you, Molly, I love you. I love your writing. One day I’ll be rich AND beautiful and take your poetry boot camp or one of those. Hugs and remember. Before enlightenment, clean up the cat barf. After enlightenment, yes, clean up the cat barf.

  • Leslie in Oregon October 22, 2016 at 5:57 pm

    Unfortunately, entropy resistance, like almost any important mindset or task, can become obsessive and/or compulsive. Finding and adhering to what is for me an appropriate degree of entropy resistance is one of my major challenges. This excellent essay will help. Thank you, Molly.

  • John Pollock October 22, 2016 at 4:26 pm

    I first learned of the word from my biologist brother. He of course used it in context with science but I immediately latched on to its wondrous poetic connotations. I didn’t know the Greek etymology but that’s closer to how I viewed the word and why I love the conceptual meaning of the word. What we call disorder and chaos is the universe working: forever expanding and swirling outward, finding what works and letting what works work, the flourishing flourishing….It’s a human conceit that our ideas of order are how things should be.

    All that said, cat barf had to be cleaned up in my little corner of the universe too and the dishes never seem to want to do themselves, as much as I wish they would.

  • Sarah October 22, 2016 at 3:55 pm

    Yes, I’m with Jeanie on the baking soda thing. Also borax (you know the 20 Mule Team stuff) works well on dog barf, urine stains, and odors. I’m sure it would do well in a house o’cats. I love the word entropy. I’ve experienced more than my share during a particularly ugly legal case here in Costa Rica. Entropy and Ennui, folk group maybe? 😉

  • Molly Fisk October 22, 2016 at 2:48 pm

    This is why telling our stories is so valuable, Jeanie! One finds out better methods of entropy-resistance. Thank you so much! 😉

  • Jeanie October 22, 2016 at 2:21 pm

    Such is the lot of many of us with multiple cats! It works well to put a pile of baking soda on the place after you pick up the large stuff. It will draw the remaining moisture out of the rug and eliminate any odor.