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Ride, Rinse, Repeat
Or, how to defy the second law of thermodynamics
Though this newsletter is called The Entropy Hotel—in homage to our front-hall closet, which is where we keep the entropy—I realize I don’t write about entropy very often. At least not explicitly. In fact, entropy is inescapable for all of us all the time. And it’s an implicit theme when I write about athletic or creative endeavors and the challenge of starting anew. Today, it struck me that we humans, of course, are constantly pretending that entropy does not exist. Without these illusions, I think we’d find it difficult to make our way through life. One of the ways that I sustain that illusion is—no surprise here—through sports.
It’s a rainy New England Saturday as I write this. Not really a day to go spend time outside. But I’m training for a trail marathon, and I’m trying to rebound from the setback of a very annoyed meniscus that cost me about a month of training. So I felt I really should get outside. My choice for the day, given a long trail run tomorrow, was cycling. So off I went.
As soon as I got going, I realized why my husband had opted out (a head cold being part of the equation): when you’re cycling, it doesn’t matter if it’s not raining hard. If you’re moving with any speed at all, you’re making that rain hit you more, and hit you harder. I was quickly soaked and having to windshield-wipe my glasses with my hand. On top of that, since I had chosen a mostly dirt-road route, I was getting a bit sprayed with, well, wet dirt. Not quite mud, but on its way to it.
And yet. It was lovely to be out, moving through space under my own power. The views of green fields and dewy cows were lovely, and the clouds and mist hanging over the mountains gave the whole thing a remote air. Best of all, though, I have to admit, was the return. There is for me such joy in returning from some outdoor athletics in which I’ve been cold or rained on or baked into a sweaty puddle—returning and showering and getting comfortable again.
We joke about how something hard feels great after you stop doing it. But for me, it’s really true. As much as I love the adventure and the challenge and seeing how much I can push myself, I loooove coming back from that discomfort and getting comfy again. Couldn’t I just, ahem, stay comfortable? Do I have to go out and be miserable in order to enjoy comfort? My weirdly puritan-for-a-child-of-mediterraneans answer is, yes. Why?
The clue is in the word “again”. The repetition is the way I sustain my illusion that there’s no entropy.
Because if you can recover from rain or mud or heat or cold (and that’s a big “if” in certain situations), that recovery allows you to refresh and renew yourself. You get to start over, from scratch but better—because you’ve also had the wonderful experience of expressing yourself physically in space. This way, you actually give yourself the illusion you’ve defied the second law of thermodynamics. You allow yourself to proclaim that Max Planck was wrong and that you can actually decrease the sum of entropies of any body taking part in the process. You’ve restored yourself back to where you started from, but you have more than you did before.
Maybe this newsletter isn’t much more than a sort of extended paean to The Shower. Hey, you can go outside and get muddy and come home and get clean again! Who knew! But because I never miss an opportunity to Scour My Experiences for Meaning, let me say this:
I think that going out to get dirty and coming home and recovering is one of the simplest reassurances we have in life.
Against an understanding that we age and die, and that everything goes from order to more disorder, we have this: it’s possible to recover. Remembering that simple fact can give you power.
It’s not lost on me that plenty of people in this world live without access to basic comforts of any kind, and that for them, recovery from stress or difficulty is never guaranteed. Add to that, isn’t most of sports simply a stylized version of the actual work that many people actually must do every day?
I can’t fix the inequalities and inequities with this newsletter. I can come back to the idea that the ability to recover gives you power. If you know you can rest, you will more readily go hard. If you know safety and security is waiting for you, you can tolerate the discomfort. You can even seek it out, and manufacture for yourself some small experiences of anti-entropy.
Ride, Rinse, Repeat. Run, Rinse, Repeat. Or—ha!—Write, Rinse, Repeat. (See what I did there?) If we focus on that cycle, we offer ourselves the consolation and comfort we need, along with the psychic energy to create. Entropy? What entropy?
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There’s also part of me that needs to earn my comfort. And on top of that, I appreciate it more after I’ve set it aside for a bit. As a writer, too, I realize that I work best on patterns of hard work and rest.
I say this as someone who sometimes uses a rowing ergometer—a work-measurer—except the “work” in question is me going precisely nowhere exercising.