entropy–a measure of the capacity of a system to undergo spontaneous change, thermodynamically specified by the relationship dS = dQ/T, where dS is an infinitesimal change in the measure for a system absorbing an infinitesimal quantity of heat dQ at absolute temperature, T.

When my daughter introduced me to the concept of entropy she was a recent engineering graduate and I was living alone on an old wooden boat. “It’s the law, Mom. No organic systems last forever.” To prove there were exceptions to every rule, I vowed to trick the march of time through diligent maintenance.

My motor yacht, no longer capable of motoring, floated in place at the 79th Street Boat Basin in Manhattan. Despite issues of age and neglect, its plumb bow and sleek dimensions suggested good bones. Weekends and summers off from my teaching job I devoted to sanding, varnishing, and painting in an unending rhythmical sequence. A project begun in the bow didn’t end in the stern but rotated back to the bow where fresh signs of decomposition had already broken out.

In order to stay ahead of persistent leaks in the cabin, I kept a loaded caulking gun at my side. Every crack or seam on deck received a blast of silicone to prevent rain from dripping into the cabin below. If there was a law determining the gravitational flow of water through layers of wood, I remained ignorant while bunks and cushions grew soaked. Plastic sheeting was an improvement over a loaded gun. But to slow the growth of mold and rust, one year I covered all 50 feet of my home in a giant blue tarp. Nesting in its warm dry cocoon, I hardly cared that the spit and polish I’d labored over was no longer visible.

With surprising regularity the boat threatened to sink. Since I couldn’t see what was happening below the water line, I depended on my bilge pumps for information, timing their activity even in my sleep. Two minutes between cycles meant pumps were keeping ahead of the incoming flow. Thirty seconds, not so much. When the pumps ran constantly, emergency action was required. If I woke in the middle of the night to find the rug in my state room already soaked, there was no waiting until morning for help.

Accustomed to dealing with nautical crises, my fellow live-aboards practiced a golden-rule approach to distressed vessels. “She’s riding too low. We’ll set up crash pumps. Get her towed to dry dock. Hope she doesn’t throw a plank on the way.”  Even if she went down, I was confident those guys had a no-nonsense plan.

Carpenters at the boat yard in Staten Island patched up the hull without questioning its longterm chances for survival. Confident I’d seen the last of dry dock, I stood like a figurehead in the bow while the boat was towed back to its slip. Rocking in my bunk at night, I dreamed of a secure maritime future.

If it was a faithful pump that wore out, a corroded wire that short-circuited the electrical system, or a brutal series of wakes that crushed my ladder against the dock, I accepted calamity as routine to boat life. But when my heating system failed during a winter blizzard while I was sick with the flu, a chain of destruction, from burst water pipes to slimy frozen plants, overwhelmed my talent for endurance. My daughter’s warnings played nonstop in a feverish head: “It’s the law…It’s the law…It’s the law.” I jumped ship.

Accepting the inevitability of entropy on an old wooden boat, required admitting its influence over my own aging system where, for every nautical condition, a body parallel existed. Did I have enough pumping capacity to maintain healthy levels in my bilge? Were numb feet a sign of a heating system gone awry? Without seeing below the water line what were my internal organs up to? If I threw a plank and threatened to go under, did I have friends to guide me and surgeons in dry dock to perform the carpentry?

Despite an ongoing commitment to maintenance, I have conceded that sanding and varnishing will not stop time. But hidden in the definition of entropy lies the promising word infinitesimal. I believe we can all take comfort from the scientific fact that change is barely measurable.

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