(about raking, renovation, physics, and limits)
A couple of weeks ago when Columbus briefly had snow, the leaves in both Goodale Park and my yard temporarily hid under its white blanket. But as typically happens in Columbus throughout what we conventionally call “winter”, that blanket melted and washed away, and the endless acres of leaves that reappeared on the ground confronted me with an item on my “to do” list: “Finish raking”. And yet, another look at that task on my list revealed to me that it is brimming with unwarranted optimism. “Finish” raking? Really? Is that even possible?
In my experience, the initial raking sessions are quite productive, and I experience a sense of great accomplishment. But as the leaves continue to fall in smaller numbers over the same geographic area (my yard), it always becomes more difficult for me to achieve the same sense of raking progress. And in the end, often because of the last few recalcitrant leaves that hold on to their branches for an interminably long time, I am never really finished. Even now, on the last day of December, I see leaves out there in my yard, mocking me. They call to mind lines from Robert Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto”: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
Browning seems to entreat me to aspire to lofty projects while reminding me that I’ll never actually achieve these aspirations during my lifetime. “Finish raking” is a good example. Another prime example: my house renovation projects. Like my leaf raking, I can’t seem to finish them. And I think I’ve figured out why. While I have always intuitively felt that I’m not to blame for the last scraps of work that never seem to get done, I now believe that a measurable force is at work, rendering me incapable of completing what I set out to accomplish. And I’ve learned something else: Browning was also writing about a law of physics.
My first step in renovation (demolition & debris removal) is both easy and satisfying for me. It takes a minimal amount of effort, and nearly no intelligence. Framing takes additional effort. Motivation for plumbing, wiring, and drywall takes even more effort. By the time I get to the finish carpentry and putting a second coat of paint on the trim, I’m paralyzed. I can’t seem to move myself forward to do the one last thing; it’s like I’m clinically depressed.
For example, our first floor bathroom is completely renovated except for an unpainted 2-inch piece of chair rail next to the door casing. If I don’t count a missing piece of shoe molding that I removed when we sanded the floors, our back parlor is completely renovated. Except for a piece of fluted door casing and some window trim, our entryway is done. If it weren’t for a two-foot-square section of wall that needs a layer of plaster and paint, our front parlor would be complete. These tiny, almost infinitesimal projects have somehow become infinitely heavy, like the mass of a pencil at the speed of light.
I don’t think I’m alone in this; I think that many of you experience it: For any long-term project, the effort required to start each step of the project magnifies as the project progresses. These two qualities (the effort and the volume of the remaining project) are inversely proportional. In other words, if you decrease the amount of work by half (finish half the project), then the effort required to begin the next step is doubled. By the time we get to the shoe molding, the effort required nearly reaches infinity.
I used to think that this was a character flaw, but I now see that this phenomenon is explained by a standard of physics, Boyle’s Gas Law. By now it might sound familiar. It basically goes like this: For a fixed amount of gas, the volume is inversely proportional to the pressure. As the initial volume of gas decreases, the pressure increases. If you compress the volume of gas in half, you double the pressure. Imagine shoving a piston into a cylinder. It’s easy at first, but then it gets harder, and harder, and still harder yet, until in the end, you’re trying to squish air molecules into nothing. The final steps of my raking and renovation projects are like these air molecules, impossible to eliminate.
(where P is pressure, V is volume, and C is a constant)
It’s currently known as “Boyle’s Gas Law”, but I predict that it will soon become known as “Boyle’s Law of Unfinished Business”, and it will become a very cool topic to bring up at dinner parties, because it explains all the things we’ve never completed. It describes a universal law that infuses everything we do with progressive difficulty as we approach closure.
(where E is effort, V is the volume of a project, and C is a constant)
It’s bigger than my leaf piles. It’s bigger than my house. It’s bigger than Boyle’s original idea. In addition to raking, renovation and gas, it describes everything from writing a college essay, to planning a reception, to organizing a basement. They’re all like this; the first steps are simple, but the projects become incorrigible near the end, leaving us with unfinished business. There are famous projects that I believe succumbed to Boyle’s Law of Unfinished Business, too. Rodin worked on The Gates of Hell for nearly 40 years but never finished it; he couldn’t decide on a final design. Leonardo da Vinci became distracted by new projects, delaying Statue of a Horse until it was undone by war; the iron was diverted for cannons, and his clay model eventually was used for target practice, and collapsed. Mozart and F. Scott Fitzgerald slowed their progress and then died before finishing Requiem and The Last Tycoon.
Oh, I see that it’s snowing a bit again. It’s just starting to cover the leaves in my yard, and I think more snow is in the forecast for Thursday. I think I’ll put the rake back in the basement. No sense struggling against the inevitable.