Pushcart 2014: Jessica Wilbanks, “Father of Disorder” (non-fiction) from Ruminate #24

Richard Bizley, "Thermodynamics"

Richard Bizley, “Thermodynamics”

When my brothers and I were growing up, all whole series of rented farmhouses rocked on the axes of my father’s moods. …
… During these episodes my mother would look on from the four-paned window in the parlor. She was slower to forget my father’s fits, and so she’d simmered there for a long while as my brothers and I gathered around my father again, tipsy with joy, passing him tools and laughing uproariously when he attempted a joke. My mother was no longer young, and she had stopped trusting my father a long time ago. She had also made it through high school chemistry; she knew that when a hot pan cools, its heat doesn’t just disappear. The law of entropy prevails. That heat has to go somewhere, and even then my mother suspected the air hadn’t just taken it up and blown it away from us.

Wilbanks’ father was given to temper tantrums, and her family was negatively affected by them. Wilbanks builds this into an essay by using entropy as a metaphor.

Anger does feel “hot” doesn’t it… but so does passion. For that matter, simple anxiety creates a great deal of energy and motion, and that’s heat, too. We’ve also got “an icy glare” to indicate disapproval, as well as “cold anger.” Depression can feel hot and stuffy, swamp-like (I’m reminded of Plath’s Esther Greenwood, “stewing in my own sour air” under the bell jar of depression), chillingly cold, or just numb and dead. Applying subjective assessments has its risks. But this is the system Wilbanks chose, and as long as she is consistent within it, I’ll go along.

I’m not an expert on thermodynamics (if you need a simple refresher, there’s always
Physics4Kids), but I’ve always enjoyed general-readership science. I’m not sure I’m going to take her description of the process of entropy as gospel; I’ve heard many, many different descriptions, including those in two recent MOOCs on the science of cooking. Heat transfer is complicated stuff, qualitatively and quantitatively; different materials accept and store heat differently, and are structurally and chemically affected by heat differently, which is why you can melt and refreeze an ice cube over and over, but you can’t unfry an egg.

I also admit to skepticism when I see a non-scientist use complicated scientific details for thematic purposes, developed over years of realizing a great-sounding metaphor might not withstand scrutiny of the underlying principles. And, by the way, I’ve used (and probably misused) entropy as a trope; it made a wonderful fulcrum for a story, whether or not I actually understand it fully, simply because no one outside of the lab really understands it fully anyway. Again, the question of “what is truth” shows up in this anthology of disparate works.

For the purposes of this essay, however, Wilbanks will tell you what you need to know:

It’s true none of us have owned homes, produced masterpieces, birthed children, or found love – instead we live paycheck-to-paycheck in second-rate cities, waiting tables, teaching other people’s children, mowing lawns, and installing concrete countertops in other people’s kitchens.… From our limited positions, it’s hard to trace these faraway stories to our various disorders, but my mother appears far above our heads and finds gossamer threads there.

Where is the boundary between “As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined” and “for what I am yesterday, is past; what I am today, is my responsibility”? That’s something I, too, wrestle with daily. We’re all affected by our pasts, yet some overcome horrible abuse and deprivation and go on to create beauty and joy and brilliance; some of us with far less in our pasts can’t seem to move beyond it. What makes the difference? Laziness, low character, lack of moral fiber? Or is it the substance we’re made of, born with? Can that substance be changed – can albumin be made to act like water, to solidify and liquefy without permanent change?

My father believes we have little choice in the matter of our own fate, and that conviction seems to be a great relief to him.

I’m sure it was. The question is: was he wrong?

If I seem to be off on a tangent here, it’s because I’m not sure what to do with this essay. I like the premise; I always like the juxtaposition of different fields of study – in this case, family psychology and physics – in the creation of a metaphor. The technique works. I’m just not sure this is the best setting.


One response to “Pushcart 2014: Jessica Wilbanks, “Father of Disorder” (non-fiction) from Ruminate #24

  1. Pingback: Pushcart 2014: David Hornibrook, “The Ultrasound” (Poetry) from Dunes Review, June 2012 | A Just Recompense

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