Through most of my 20’s, I lived in New Hampshire (and occasionally, Vermont). In New Hampshire, at night, when you look up at the sky, you can see a lot of stars. After many nights spent looking up at those stars, I began to realize that there was a whole hell of a lot more darkness than light. The more I thought about space, the universe, and our place in it, the more I realized that 99.99999% of the universe is inimical to anything that I thought good: life, love, hope, laughter. If you were dropped naked, at random, almost anywhere in the universe, you’d be dead before you could even recognize you’d arrived. We are, literally, the astronomically improbable exception in a universe antithetical to life.
But it was even worse than that, because there’s also this thing called entropy, and it’s boss. The second law of thermodynamics says that entropy always increases, it’s the only inexorable force in the universe. Anything you might do, any work you might effect, any force you might exert to counter this force just screws you over even faster, driving the universe that much closer to its inevitable terminus, the state of “heat death,” its final, constant, maximal, and homogeneous state of entropy.
(All pics in this post are clickable for bigger versions!)
You can imagine the universe being in a particular state right now, and you can imagine that particular state (just for continued cosmological funsies) as being a dot on a phase space diagram of all possible universes. Once second into the future, the universe will be in another state, but we can’t predict the exact state it will be in, because we can’t predict the future. What we do know, though, is that the field of all possible points for the universe to be next, is constrained by the need for the universe to be in a greater state of entropy. And so you can imagine this enormous graph over time this monstrous shape of all possible ways for the universe to play out over time, but whatever this evolving shape, it can only ever terminate in the single point of maximal entropy. Wherever we are now in that diagram, and whatever shape the timeline of the universe does ultimately take, we only know it’s guaranteed to terminate in that one guaranteed final destination of heat death.
When we talk about phase diagrams and shapes that pull in or constrain or attract other shapes to their own shapes, we call those shapes “attractors”. Entropy’s the ultimate attractor. It pulls everything toward itself. When humans stop being orderly systems and succumb, finally, as we all must, to the 2nd law, we call that state death. Death is when the order-keeping systems of your body fail, cells breach, thermoregulation stops, you begin your slow dissolutive journey toward dispersal into your environment. In other words, there’s your ultimate attractor right there: death, disorder, ruination, chaos, dissolution. It doesn’t matter what you call it, really, because what it means is that no matter what you build, love, care for, or believe, that’s where all any of this is going to wind up. Go directly to jail, do not pass go.
It’s true, I wasn’t a lot of fun at parties in my 20’s, but, even so, I felt like I had to be missing something. I felt like I must have reached the end of the road that my liberal arts education had set me on. That what I’d arrived at was not some staggering vision of the Ultimate Truth, but the inevitable terminus of the intellect. A world apprehended solely through the intellect? Of course it was going to be pretty bleak. There was nowhere left to go, except away from my own mind and its pitfalls, and, maybe more significantly, away from New Hampshire and its terrible, beautiful nighttime skies.
So just before I turned 30, I came to Boston, where I intended to live, have fun and have what, in my idiocy, I called a Normal Life. I was going to have as much Normal Fun as I possibly could, and forget about all that stupid intellectual nihilistic bullshit and LIVE goddammit. I was going to rage so fucking hard against the dying of the light!
This life choice very nearly killed me. Oh I had some fun, but it was a fun stained with rage. I was angry about a lot of things, not just my own philosophical peregrinations. I took this rage out on myself and those closest to me, until I was completely alone, and all I had left to show for my philosophy and my escape from it was an empty apartment full of bullshit to distract me from my problems and my poor exercises in judgment.
Unfortunately, one of those things in my apartment was a book called Darwin’s Dangerous Dilemma. I never did read the whole thing, but I did read enough of it to become convinced that just the very idea of Evolution is maybe one of the greatest insights anyone has ever framed for understanding how … just everything works. The basic idea is that there’s a bunch of random shit happening, and then one of the random things that happens is a random thing that manages to replicate itself and persist over time. But because random shit is happening all the time, random shit happens to this randomly generated self-sustaining, self-replicating thingie itself, and sometimes that makes the random bit more or less able to replicate itself and persist over time.
This little nugget explains not just life’s appearance and increasing complexification, but also the existence of the universe itself, the free market, human relationships, society, the persistence of ideas and memes over time. It’s pretty remarkable, not just for itself, but for its elegant simplicity and obviousness, once you see it. You get to wondering how we ever even missed it, you know, as a species.
It also delivered me right back to where I’d started, to what I wanted to avoid thinking about ever again. All those terrible intellectual abstractions came out of the mental steamer trunk I’d locked them away in, each ready to titter and say, “See, I told you so.” Because what I saw, and what I still see, when I look at the principle of evolution is that one word “random”, which sure sounds an awful lot like “entropy” to me.
You can imagine all the beautiful wonderful tapestry of life lying like a fabric across the world, but the machine that stitches that tapestry is one of randomness, of entropy. I imagined this Dark Engine that undergirded the world and drove the universe forward to its inevitable death. Somehow, through sheer accident, good things do happen, and life happens, and joy and love, but driving it all forward with remorseless, unceasing vigor, is this Dark Engine, the secret machine that churns not just at the heart of the cosmos, but behind the thinnest skin of every passing moment. Not only do we emerge from darkness and not only must we return to darkness, but we are all of us and everything by darkness driven.
I never made peace with this and I never let it go, but, now that I have found someone who loves me, and someone with whom I can share my life, and not feel so alone or so tormented, now that I’ve found a lovely woman who gives me a smile in the morning and a smooch each night before I go to bed, I find I don’t mind the darkness so much. And if entropy and randomness and the heat death of the universe can somehow add up to me having a nice visit on this Earth for a little while with her and all my other friends and all the other delights of the living world, eh, I guess it’s not so bad. I guess you could say I’ve made a truce with that Dark Engine, a nonaggression pact maybe. It seems like the best anyone can hope for, right?
And so but that’s most of what my tattoo is about. There are some other little riffs here and there, like the blackberries at top, which are a reference to one of my favorite poems, and there are lots of sinuous viney growing things, because I have always loved those shapes and forms of nature, and there are flowers because of how I feel like I’ve blossomed since I’ve emerged from my own private darkness, and maybe a couple other private bits besides, one of which hasn’t even been added yet…
It took a long time and the patience of and skill of a wonderful artist, Roz Thompson at the Boston Tattoo Company to help bring this vision to life. When I initially came to her, I didn’t really know what I wanted. I had some ideas, but she’s the one who helped me zero in on getting this idea for incorporating the Dark Engine into the piece. That’s what those gears are supposed to represent, turning things up from the darkness at the bottom, up into goodness and fruition and light up at the top. It’s also a sketch of my own personal narrative, up from darkness, through the grinding gears of a difficult marriage, up into sweet flowers and fruit. And it’s also like a badge of the hard-won knowledge I’ve earned just for making it this far. And on top of that, it’s the shapes and forms of the natural world that have always been such a comfort and joy to me.
So there’s the answer to the question I get asked the second-most whenever people see my tattoo for the first time, namely, “does it mean anything?”
The answer to the most asked question is much easier: yes, it fucking hurt.