100 days

By Shlomit Auciello | Jan 29, 2021

In a recent phone conversation, a friend suggested that biological life, in its drive to organize energy and organic matter into beings that can reproduce, grow and function, is in constant opposition to entropy.

Not deeply versed in the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I did a quick bit of online research. Here's what I learned:

In the world of physics, entropy is a measure of disorder. The Second Law states that entropy always increases over time. This idea has been tested repeatedly and continues to bear out: Entropy is the natural direction of material existence. All life is held together with impermanence, moving relentlessly toward disintegration.

While it cannot be defeated, entropy can be delayed. Your house, which is rotting as we speak, will stay together longer with repeated painting, a new roof every dozen years, an annual tithe to the gods of furnace maintenance. Your relationships can survive and strengthen with communication, efforts of kindness and occasional spontaneous acts of generosity. Your financial condition may hold together or even improve with the benefit of a regular visit to your bank statement.

Entropy is a good concept to keep in mind, as we sit in our homes waiting for a miracle of science. Because if all we do is sit and wait, the cure for our medical entrapment will take a very long time. The novel coronavirus is not sitting and waiting; it is doing what all life does. It is a tiny creature with a very short life span (anywhere from a few minutes to five days for an individual microbe) and it mutates rapidly, constantly trying out new adaptations to circumvent the efforts of those who would like to thwart it.

Humans, on the other hand, are large animals with relatively long life spans. In addition to this, thinking we know better than nature, we often override our processes of decay and evolution. We use artificial methods to prolong individual existence, potentially sacrificing the viability of the species for the sake of another 10 years on the planet for those of us wealthy enough to forestall disease and genetic inheritance.

A year ago, I was preparing to travel to Colorado. The news of pandemic was just breaking and, while I paid it some attention, I did not take it seriously. There were two or three people wearing masks on the plane when I flew out of Logan Airport Feb. 24. On the return flight, a week later, there might have been more. In between, I moved freely through crowded stores and along busy hiking trails. I didn't even own a mask.

Since then, I've accepted the idea that wearing two-to-four layers of cotton over my nose and mouth is likely to inhibit the spread of a disease that is still killing more humans every week than it did the week before. In late March, when I'd begun to restrict my activities, I covered my lower face and took a walk to the Post Office to mail some packages.

I was in the building for about 20 minutes, during which seven other people joined me in the busy space. No one else was masked, a couple of people got right up in the postal clerk's face to complain about things outside of his control, and I finally turned to the person behind me to comment on this. I told her how long I'd been in line and that I was surprised to be the only person there wearing a mask.

“Maybe that's because we're not sick,” she said, rather pointedly. As it turns out, and as I suspected all along, I wasn't sick either. I'm a pretty healthy person, but I know that healthy people often bring disease to others and that's why I wear a mask. I am enough of an agent of entropy, without any extra carelessness.

On his first day in office, President Biden asked us all to wear masks for the the next 100 days. That would bring us to April 29. In another reality, this would seem like a very long time, but this last year has ripped aside the illusion of control and stability. We exist in an entropic world and our only hope of survival as individuals, and possible as a species, is to take responsibility for the sort of maintenance behavior that keeps houses standing and relationships alive.

The first 100 days of a presidency have been a benchmark since FDR took office in 1933. Faced with the Great Depression, Roosevelt set a number of goals, calling on Congress and the American people to work rapidly toward systemic change.

Kennedy, who famously called on us to look less toward what could be done for us than to what we could do for others, found himself mired in the Cold War. Reagan completed negotiations, begun by Carter, for the release of 52 hostages held in Iran. Obama guided the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act through Congress, and Trump promised to use his early days in office to construct a wall on the southern U.S. Border, limit illegal immigration, crack down on companies that send jobs overseas, repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, and pass a rule stating that, for every new regulation, two old regulations must be eliminated.

Biden has his own ambitions for his administration's first three months, but the list above shows us that not all goals can be accomplished, no matter how many branches of government a president controls.

What appeals to me about the current president's program for his first 100 days is this request to us, the chaotic individuals who comprise the citizenry, that we each take responsibility for sharing one simple task. We are being asked to participate in an experiment that costs little and may benefit us greatly.

We are not being asked to accept a vaccine, when it is offered, although that may not be such a bad idea. We're not being asked to put on uniforms and go to war, or to ration our use of gasoline or toilet paper or hot water. We're not being told to use the correct pronouns or pick up after our dogs, or stop smoking pot, cease eating sugar, or give up caffeine.

All we're being asked to do is accomplish one simple task for 14 weeks to hold back the relentless force of entropy.

Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992.

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